A whale stops by to say hello

My family and I went to see Life of Pi last night. I have not (yet) read the book, but Gareth Higgins (who knows a lot more about movies than I do) says it’s one of the best novel adaptations he’s ever seen. I can only judge the movie on its own merits, and I’d say it’s well worth seeing. If you’re worried about spoilers, stop reading this now and go see the movie.

My, what large teeth you have…

Okay, you’re still reading, so I assume you’ve either seen the movie or are not worried about spoilers. So I’ll say a few words about why I’m recommending this film. First of all, it’s simply gorgeous. Director Ang Lee has plenty of fun with color and spectacle in this film, sort of blending the gee-whiz fantasy feel of Avatar with the magical realism of Amélie. It’s an unusual story: a spiritual endurance test as a young man, Pi, survives a shipwreck, only to find his sole companion on his lifeboat is a Bengal tiger. After many days at sea, and a variety of adventures that will push your credulity to the limit, man and tiger finally wash up on the shore of Mexico, where the tiger simply saunters away into the jungle — leaving Pi to sort out what happened to him, not only to himself but to the suits from the insurance company who show up at the hospital to interview (interrogate?) him. And how he handles that — and the conclusions he reaches, both for himself and for those with whom he shares his story, form the heart of the movie’s spiritual message.

It’s a mythic story, in the best sense of the word. Unless you believe in the existence of a floating man-shaped island infested with meerkats that becomes dangerous after nightfall, the story is clearly inhabiting the magical space between myth, dream, and illusion. But of course, once we realize that’s where we are, the obvious question arises: just how much of this story is mythic, how much is “real” and how much is only a fantasy? Pi exploits that place of unknowing (yes, I’m choosing my words carefully) to make a thoroughly postmodern — and entirely satisfactory — affirmation about the existence of God. It probably will bother fundamentalists or those who are invested in a naive faith, but otherwise, it’s a pretty powerful statement.

One thing I love about this film is how interfaith-friendly it is. As a boy, Pi falls in love successively with Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. His father ridicules him for such an inclusive piety, but the young man remains undeterred, and carries his faith with him on his ordeal. When things seem to be at their bleakest on the ocean, Pi simply enters into a deeper sense of surrender. Does this faith save him? Ang Lee cleverly dodges that question, leaving it for us to figure out on our own. But even with the big helpings of mystery that give this movie its shape, it’s one of the most honest yet faith-friendly movies I’ve seen in a while — the only other recent film to my knowledge that rivals it for a sympathetic portrayal of spirituality is Of Gods and Men. Factor in a brief but friendly encounter with a Buddhist on board the ship and the fact that Pi goes on to become a Kabbalah teacher, and this film essentially makes a quiet but affirming statement for a spirituality that is radically inclusive of the world’s major faiths.

So — have you seen the movie? What did you think of it?

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