Broadly stated, the movie Life of Pi is about the search for God and the essential role that stories play in that urge to know the unknowable, even as the unknowable remains forever unknown. Adrift on a raft in the Pacific Ocean for days on end, accompanied by a dangerous tiger, the character Pi – a kind of teenaged modern-day Job – is on a spiritual journey. He discovers that difficult circumstances that seem designed to defeat him are actually the tools for his growth.
The metaphysical overtones of the narrative, so crucial to its telling, would seem impossible to convey on film; but Ang Lee – whose previous films include The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain – is up to the challenge. Surely one of the most seductive features of the movie is the stunningly beautiful images of the ocean, which, thanks to the 3-D film technology, takes on the interest of a character.
Lee’s compelling version of the story focuses on the waves and watery depths as much as on the boy’s musings and emotions and confrontations with the prowling tiger – a triumph of filmmaking that contains its own Pi-like seed of irony: This primal, intensely intimate tale of the quest for truth, located in the most elemental of settings, was crafted from an array of complex technologies, from the 3-D camera to an enormous self-generating wave tank, built especially for the film, to digital animation – a machinery all but invisible, of course, to the viewer. Lee’s sophisticated use of these tools in service to the narrative – so at odds with the heavy-handed employment of special effects that deaden so many Hollywood films – as well as his working relationship to the lead actor, a teenager with no previous acting experience who couldn’t swim, were key to achieving a cinematic vision that he initially doubted was possible.
That backstory has in itself a Pi-like fascination and complexity. Hence, Jean-Christophe Castelli’s The Making of Life of Pi: A Film, A Journey (Harper Design) is an especially good read, shedding light on the artistry of Lee’s vision, the unusual other talents that came into play and the seemingly insurmountable challenges.
The greatest challenge, said Castelli – who will be giving a special talk and book-signing at Fiberflame Studio in Saugerties this Saturday, February 9 – was “bringing this enormous machinery to bear on a film that’s ultimately very intimate and about character and ideas, and have it all disappear. And all of this huge machinery was carried on the slim shoulders of a 17-year-old boy who had never acted before.”