Life of Pi is a strangely affecting film that employs an adventure story and 3D photography to pose a simple question: Does God exist? This may not sound like a promising premise for a popular movie, but in the hands of director Ang Lee, it succeeds beyond all expectations.
As a boy growing up in southern India, Pi Patel is drawn to religions of every variety. He thanks Vishu, the Hindu god of creation, for bringing him to Christ, and he worships Allah on a mat in his family home.
At the age of sixteen, Pi's faith is tested by a set of circumstances that leave him drifting at sea in a lifeboat in the company of a fully-grown Bengal tiger. Their mutual struggle to survive forms the dramatic heart of the narrative.
While Pi never loses his faith in God, his relationship with the tiger eventually becomes more meaningful to him. At first the tiger dominates the territory of the lifeboat and forces Pi onto a pathetic makeshift raft tied by a length of rope to the stern of the boat.
But eventually Pi learns to control the animal and to care for him deeply. He credits the tiger with saving his own life: by forcing him to remain vigilant and to keep it fed, as well as by its companionship, the tiger enables Pi to maintain his sanity and his will to live, adrift on the sea for over two hundred days.
Where in this picture does God reside, if at all?
On its surface, the film leaves the answer to this question ambiguous. It allows the viewer to choose, almost as a matter of personal preference, whether or not to have faith in any deity.
But the deeper, driving message of the film is that God is an actual, living presence in the form of nature. The vastness of the sea, the beauty of the light, the power of the storms, the visceral, terrifying energy of the tiger - these are the many faces of God, as tangible and compelling as day and night.
This God is not some ethereal deity hiding behind the forms of nature. God is nature. God is the tiger itself.
The uncertainties inherent in his quest for God are apparent in Pi's very name. As the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle, pi is notorious for being essentially unknowable. We can calculate its digits to the trillionth decimal place without ever coming to a place of finality. We call such numbers irrational, and with good reason.
This point is not lost in the film, as the connection between the name of the boy and the mathematical symbol is a salient feature of his days in school. Life of Pi, therefore, is not only the story of Pi Patel, but an exploration into the unknowable depths of life. The movie succeeds as an adventure story, as a visual tour de force, and as a study in spirituality, all at the same time.
When they finally reach land, the emaciated tiger wanders off into the forest without so much as a glance back at the boy who saved his life and sustained him for so many days. God as nature is immense, all powerful, and all around us -- but ultimately she is indifferent to the fate of man.