BY LE LE MAC
I want to start off by stating that I will not be comparing the film to the book. This is a film review, not a book-to-movie comparison! Also, I couldn’t get through the book. It wasn’t because it was poorly written — it’s just because the novel started off being very descriptive of animals and religious experiences, and I can’t relate to either. Nevertheless, the film is a glorious visual feast, rich with metaphors that anyone can relate to. You don’t have to like animals or be deeply religious to appreciate what this film has to say.
To summarize it briefly, the main character, Pi (Suraj Sharma), and his family own a zoo in Pondicherry, India. For sustainability reasons, his family embarks on a journey to immigrate to Winnipeg, Canada on a Japanese cargo ship along with their zoo animals. This is where Pi’s adventures begin. Simply put, this is a story of a boy who is lost at sea with a Bengal tiger and who must find a way to survive and return to civilization.
In multiple ways, this film explores the integration of what Carl Jung calls the “persona” and the “shadow.” The persona refers to the self we are familiar with, and the shadow represents the parts of ourselves that we suppress and are often scary to us, but are necessary to examine in order to grow as individuals. The persona and the shadow are explored in these three parallel stories: Pi’s exploration of religion, Pi’s first interaction with the tiger and Pi being stranded in the Pacific Ocean.
In the beginning of the movie, a young Pi dabbles in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. His father ridicules him for believing in essentially nothing because he believes in all three different religions. His father is the spokesperson for rationality and science, instilling fear in Pi by saying that religion is darkness. Pi is the internalized believer of all these religions, conflicting with the rationality his father encourages. The rational approach is connected to the parts of the personality that are known and familiar, while religion is connected to the unknown parts of one’s personality (the unconscious) which are mysterious. The film seems to caution against pure rationalism, as the connection to ideas of spirit and to the unknown are part of what keeps Pi going in the face of adversity.
The film becomes more explicit in Pi’s examination of his shadow when his interaction with the tiger is introduced. As a child, he wanted to feed the tiger raw meat with his bare hands at the zoo. This early scene represents his instinct to connect to the unknown. He was curious about his shadow, but in the same way his father discourages him from religion, he discourages him from getting near the dangerous animal. The shadow is introduced to be mysterious, dangerous and scary.
In another instance, Pi leaves his slumber on the cargo ship to experience the raging thunderstorm in the middle of the ocean. Abandoning the comfort of his dry and warm bed to see the thunderstorm up close, saves his life and gets him onto a lifeboat. Unfortunately, the rest of the cargo ship, including his family, sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The rest of the film continues with Pi’s journey on the lifeboat along with other survivors: an adult Bengal tiger, a zebra with a broken leg, a vicious hyena and an orangutan that floated to them on a nest of bananas. Pi’s curious and exploratory nature often leads him to trouble, but his risk taking is also the part of himself that allows him to explore both his familiar persona and his buried shadow.
When he is stranded on the lifeboat, Pi and the tiger end up being the sole survivors, so the film is centred around Pi and his shadow. Pi could suppress his shadow by leaving it stranded in the ocean, or even try to kill it in order to save himself, but nurturing the tiger keeps him alive because it gives him purpose and a reason to survive. Symbolically, the tiger, also named Richard Parker, represents Pi’s shadow; that is, his animalistic ferocity and instinct to survive. Being stranded in the Pacific allows Pi to acquaint himself with his shadow, gain new purpose in life, delve into his unconscious and, ultimately, grow as a person.
This story is told through the eyes of the adult Pi as he is recounting these events to a novelist who wants to write his story. He ends his story by telling the novelist that he told an alternate version of the story to the insurance representatives of the cargo ship where the animals were actually humans (they found it hard to believe that Pi was on a ship with four other animals). He didn’t indicate which story was the real one, but instead tells the novelist to pick the story he preferred since it’s now his story to tell. That resonated with me because it led me to not take Pi’s story of being lost at sea so literally. It became my story to tell.
I related to the film by thinking of myself being lost in life. I’m trying to find my niche career and am constantly exploring my shadow side. I can’t just think about the rational side of finding a new career (i.e. landing something that has a lot more pay, is close to home and is easy to attain). I won’t be growing as an individual or a professional if I just look at those things. But along with considering those elements, I need to look at my shadow side –what my strengths and weaknesses are, what is competitive edge is, what I find to be meaningful and what I am willing to do and assert to get what I want in life.
My only criticism of Life of Pi is that I didn’t leave the theatre entertained. The film did leave me with picturesque imagery and rich metaphors that led me to reflect on myself. However, the focus on these aspects sacrificed any opportunity to have any empathetic connection towards the main character. We see his whole family die in the ocean and his life slowly disintegrate, but I didn’t shed a tear! Perhaps the film’s purpose is to primarily leave the audience thinking critically rather than feeling any emotion.
“A” for being meaningful and the “-“ for lacking entertainment value.
Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, and Tabu. Written by David Magee (screenplay) and Yann Martel (novel).
Le Le Mac’s passion in film started when she would watch several Chinese films a week so that she could learn how to be more fluent in her mother tongue. Her passion then led her to study film and the Asian diaspora in Canada in graduate school. She is currently writing film reviews as a hobby. She is a big fan of Radiohead and tea. She has 40 different types of tea in her collection, and will often host tea parties. She currently lives in Toronto with her husband.