It is Noah's Ark in miniature—a lifeboat floating on the skin of the sea when the world has been lost.
Built for 30, the lifeboat holds two: Pi, a Hindu/Christian/Muslim teen who never got to say goodbye to his girlfriend; and Richard Parker, a hungry Bengal tiger who doesn't care. There used to be more. A hyena. A zebra with a broken leg. An orangutan named Orange Juice. All are gone now, killed and consumed. Pi and Parker are alone. They and God.
When life shrinks to the space of a lifeboat holding a hungry tiger, it takes on a new character. Each day for Pi becomes an exercise in survival: finding food, catching rainwater, staying away from Richard Parker's claws. He marks his days on the side of the boat, numbering the sunsets with a knife. Slowly he trains the tiger, hoping his mastery over the beast will keep him alive.
And as the boat floats through days and weeks and months, a bond grows between Pi and Parker. "My fear of him keeps me alert," Pi says. "Tending to his needs gives me purpose." This is not friendship, not love. But it is something precious and real.
They have no doves to search for land. Their flare gun is spent, and neither their resources nor resourcefulness can last forever. And yet Pi believes they float in the cup of God's hand. Perhaps He will carry them home.
The movie never tells us how long Pi and Richard Parker are adrift in that lifeboat, but the book on which its based (written by Yann Martel) informs us that they spend 227 days together. More than eight months. To survive that long requires something special, and Pi shows us that he's special indeed.
Though he has no real skills to speak of, Pi quickly bones up on the essentials with a survival handbook he finds with a few supplies. Naturally, the booklet has little to say about surviving a shipwreck with a Bengal tiger, but he figures out the basics of that too, patching together a raft that floats outside the lifeboat. He spends a good chunk of time there, fishing and collecting rainwater, throwing the occasional meal to the tiger. So we certainly have to laud Pi's resourcefulness.
But Pi's far more than a pragmatic survivor. The handbook exhorts him to "never lose hope," and he doesn't. It's that hope, in fact, that buoys the boat as much as its wood does, and it's Pi's sometimes unreasoning sense of grace that allows the story to sail.
When in desperation Richard Parker leaps from the boat to try to catch a fish, it would seem as though Pi's problems have been solved: Just let the big cat drown out there. But Pi can't. He finds a way to save the tiger's life (though the tiger would never show the same consideration), offering grace to an animal that certainly doesn't deserve it and will never fully repay it. When both seem to be on the verge of death, Pi sits down next to Parker and puts his furry head on his lap, stroking him, staying with him to what he presumes will be their end.
The movie begins with a writer visiting an adult Pi after hearing that the man had "a story that would make me believe in God." But while the potent sense of spirituality that pervades this tale is Life of Pi's greatest strength, it's also what makes it deeply problematic.
Pi, as I mentioned when I first introduced him, worships at multiple altars of faith. He was raised Hindu, absorbing the religion's colorful myths as another boy might the stories of superheroes. Several Hindu gods are named, images of them are seen, and Pi explicitly prays to one. But when his brother dares him to drink some holy water from a local church, a priest spots him, observes that he must be thirsty and gives him a glass of less-sanctified water (an echo of Christ being the Living Water, perhaps). From then on, Pi's fascinated by Jesus and fervently embraces who He is and what He represents—while thanking the Hindu god Vishnu for bringing Christ into his life. Later, he comes to appreciate Islam, too—the way the Arabic prayers roll off the tongue, the comfort of the repetitive kneeling and bowing.
His father, a science-driven man who declares that all religion is "darkness," kids Pi, saying that if he converts to just three more religions, every day of the week will be some sort of holiday. More seriously, he exhorts him to also pray at the altar to reason. Every decision Pi makes, his father insists, must be based in science and rationality.
At the beginning of his lifeboat journey, Pi calls out, "God, I give myself to You. I am Your vessel. Whatever comes I want to know. Show me." He thanks God for all the hardships he endures, for Richard Parker and, when he feels he's about to die, for his life—telling the Almighty that he's looking forward to seeing his family again. During a storm he grows angry, asking God what more He could possibly want or take from him.
[Spoiler Warning] When both Pi and Richard Parker are close to death, their boat drifts to a floating island that's completely edible and covered with meerkats. But at night, the island reverses its nature. Instead of feeding visitors, it feeds on them. (All the meerkats flee to the trees at sundown as even the pools of fresh water turn to acid.) Pi interprets both manifestations as gifts from God. He says, God "gave me rest … and a sign to continue the journey."
[Bigger Spoiler Warning] When Pi is finally rescued, the Japanese company that owned the cargo ship that sank sends representatives to Pi to find out what happened. Pi tells them the story. Then, when they express incredulity, he tells them another one: In this version, there are no animals on the boat—only people who, it would appear, correspond in some way to the animals. An injured Buddhist has a broken leg, just like the zebra. A vile cook stands in for the hyena. The orangutan, in this version, is Pi's own mother. All are killed. Some are eaten.
If we believe the cannibalistic story, we dismiss the Richard Parker story as some sort of psychological device crafted by Pi to deal with the horror of it all. But if we can believe the first telling, we embrace the idea that, with God, all things are possible: That a floating, carnivorous island is a gift not unlike Manna from heaven. If we believe that both stories as true, then the first—like a myth or parable—gives the second meaning and resonance.
This uncertainty makes for a fascinating movie that deeply mulls faith while offering other extraordinary but ancillary messages. But without proper mooring, a casual viewer might take away a couple of dangerous messages: One, that all faiths lead to the same God, and two, religion infuses meaning into our lives regardless of whether it's literally true or not. The latter might be akin to embracing a figurative resurrection of Christ (in that He lives in our hearts) while suggesting that a literal resurrection is beside the point. Christianity rejects both of these messages: Jesus unreservedly tells us He is the only way to God, and the Apostle Paul declares that without a literal resurrection, we are to be pitied above all men.
None. Pi does take a fancy to a Hindu dancer, and the two spend some chaste time together.
The natural world is not a gentle place, and we see evidence of that here. It's a lesson that Pi learns well before he even boards that ill-fated ship. After Pi's father (who runs a zoo) catches his son trying to feed Richard Parker a slab of meat (through a set of bars), he decides to teach Pi a lesson: He ties a live goat to the bars and forces his son to watch as the tiger kills and drags the beast through. (The camera cuts away from the fatal strike. Then we see the dead animal in Parker's jaws.)
On the lifeboat, things get far, far worse. The zebra's obviously lame, and the hyena begins attacking the huge beast, nipping on its flanks as Pi and the zebra both scream. (Moviegoers get off easy, though. In the book, the hyena begins eating the zebra while it's still alive.) Then the hyena and orangutan get into it. Though Orange Juice stuns the hyena with a blow to the head, the beast recovers and kills the orangutan. And when the hyena starts crawling for Pi, Richard Parker suddenly reveals himself—lunging at the hyena and killing it instantly. Parker later snacks on a meerkat. We catch a brief glimpse of what appears to be a hippo being attacked by sharks. A sperm whale tangles with a giant squid. Pi pounds a fish with a hammer to knock it out/kill it, apologizing profusely to it afterward.
We see the cargo ship sink, killing many. Pi's father and a cook nearly come to blows.
Crude or Profane Language
Pi's real name is Piscine Molitor Patel. His schoolmates mock the pronunciation of its first syllable.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Pi urinates on part of the boat as a way to mark his territory and keep Richard Parker away. The tiger, in response, sprays both Pi's region and Pi himself with a urine blast of his own. Several animals get seasick; we hear them retch and see the hyena vomit in the boat.
Life of Pi is unlike any movie I've ever seen. It is both beautiful and ugly, profound and problematic.
It is rich in conversation starters, and it rebuts, powerfully, the idea that faith is "darkness." It speaks eloquently to the core of what it means to be faithful—to surrender yourself to God, to trust Him, to allow Him to use you as He will. It hints that we should always be on the lookout for miracles, be it a floating carnivorous island or simply the blessing of having food to eat for another day.
You could say, then, that Life of Pi contains snippets that might be used as sermon illustrations in almost any Christian church in the world. But it's telling that Pi's first religion was Hinduism, because there's something very Eastern about the manifestation of spirituality here. Maybe that's because when you've grown up with 33 million gods, incorporating one more (Christ) into the pantheon isn't that big of a deal to Pi.
Most Christians will agree with Pi's rational, religion-free father when he says that believing in everything is "the same thing as not believing anything at all." Indeed, theologically, the idea that all religions are true is simply not tenable. When we accept Christ as Savior, we accept Him as our only Savior—and we accept Him through a blend of not just what we feel is right, but what is historically, literally true.
Life of Pi isn't interested in any of that.
To hear Paul Asay talk about Life of Pi on the Official Plugged In Podcast, access Episode #177 from our Podcast page.