Film Reviews

Life of Pi & Samsara

Published January 5, 2013

Every movie seems to come with a pithy tag line intended to be thought-provoking and seductive. Probably the two best-known examples are: “In space, no-one can hear you scream”, from Alien (1979); and “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water..” from Jaws 2 (1978). In the latter case the tag line has to proved far more memorable than the film itself.
Ang Lee’s Life of Pi has spawned two rather ordinary tags: “Believe the unbelievable”, and “Take the journey of a lifetime.” As an alternative, I freely offer this one: “I thought I’d found God, but it was only special effects.”
When it appeared in 2001, Yann Martel’s novel was marketed with the line: “This book will make you believe in God.” This may sound like a big claim, but some people can even believe in L. Ron Hubbard, so the threshold for belief is not that daunting. Although I’ve yet to find a single person converted by Life of Pi, it was an ingenious allegory of spiritual self-discovery with roots in the great religious epics in which a hero’s faith is tested by God in a series of trials. It was also a survival story, featuring a lone character holding out against impossible odds; and a meditation on our relationships with animals – an issue that has become a preoccupation with both activists and philosophers.
Depite its best-seller status, Life of Pi was believed by many to be an unfilmable book. Ang Lee, who must be the most versatile and fearless of contemporary directors, has put paid to that assumption with an adaptation by David Magee that sticks closely to the orginal text, with only a few astute changes.
Nevertheless, it is not the script that will linger in most viewers’ minds after leaving the theatre. In its visual impact, and the quite incredible use of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), this film breaks new ground.
It’s hard to think of an occasion where 3D technology has been employed to such good effect, or where CGI has produced such life-like illusions. For more than half of this film the lead character shares a life-boat with a tiger so realistic it seems like a miraculous feat of animal training rather than a cohabitation produced in a studio.
The movie begins in Canada, with a writer (Rafe Spall), going to visit one Pi Patel (Irffan Khan), because he has been told by an Indian acquaintance this man has a story that will make him believe in God. As the middle-aged Pi begins to relate his tale, we are transported back to his childhood in Pondicherry, a part of India known as “the French Riviera of the East”.
Piscine Molitor Patel has been named after a swimming pool in France, but this does not impress the boys at school who call him “Pissing Patel”. Henceforth he decides to call himself Pi, after the mathematical constant that provides the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. This is highly appropriate because Pi is a “transcendental number” with a decimal representation that continues into infinity, while the young Pi Patel is a devotee of religions who tries to incorporate elements of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam into his everyday life.
In the course of the film four separate actors will play the role of Pi at different stages of his life, with the longest, most dramatic scenes given to 16-year-old newcomer, Suraj Sharma, who delivers a remarkable performance.
Pi’s father owns a zoo, giving the family a special affinity with animals, but this idyllic life comes to an end when political and economic strife prompts them to sell up and migrate to Canada. They set off in a Japanese steamer, accompanied by a menagerie of exotic animals, yet the ship gets only as far as the mid-Pacific before it is caught in a storm and sunk. Pi finds himself adrift in a life boat, his companions being a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan, a hyena and a full-size Bengal Tiger incongruously named Richard Parker.
These ranks are soon reduced, and Pi is left alone with Richard Parker on a voyage that will last 227 days, and take up more than half the film. Beyond this point I won’t reveal any more. The plot proceeds episodically until the final scenes, which introduce a metaphysical conundrum that has generated fierce debate in relation to the book and now the movie.
With rare exceptions such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), soon to be screened during the Sydney Festival with a live orchestra; or more recently, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), this love of paradox is unusual for a mainstream movie. Unlike these earlier films, Life of Pi could not be classified as science fiction – it is a fantasy that insists on its own plausibility. One might call it “magical realism” but this is a shallow, overused term.
The ending makes us conscious that we have spent the past two hours absorbing a story within a story.
Stories may be true or false, but we usually have no way of telling one kind from the other. Ang Lee follows Yann Martel in throwing the emphasis back on the reader/viewer. Instead of being the passive recipients of this tale we are asked to choose between alternatives, to decide which story we like best. In choosing, we reveal – or understand – something about ourselves.
This is unlikely to make us believe in God, but it suggests a reason why so many of us do. God is a better story – a preferred option for those who would like life to be animated by something beyond purely human concerns. This is similar to the arguments used by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a recent debate with Richard Dawkins. Take away the idea of a higher, shaping intelligence and everything seems dully mechanistic. When the existence of God can be neither proven nor disproven, atheism seems more narrowly fundamentalist than faith.
Pi is a pan-religionist, who takes what he needs from three different creeds. His experiences on the voyage, which include an encounter with a whale, a tempest of flying fish, and an interlude on an island overrun with Meerkats, are portrayed with such breathtaking skill we might easily believe, along with him, that Divine forces are at work.
If you are still in the mood for spectacle after Life of Pi, the obvious next destination is Samsara, a wordless, plotless documentary by Ron Fricke, that takes viewers around the planet in a series of giddy loops that could seemingly be extended forever.
Fricke has described the film as “a non-verbal guided meditation on the cycle of birth, death and re-birth.” The title is a Buddhist term for this circle or wheel of existence. Apart from this, the film has no relation to Pan Nalin’s Samsara of 2001, which detailed the struggles of a Tibetan Buddhist monk to reconcile the spiritual and worldly aspects of his personality.
The movies one might cite as precedents, if we discount the grandaddy of the genre – Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) – are Godfrey Reggio’s documentaries that go under the name of the Qatsi trilogy. Fricke was cinematographer on the first of these, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), before going on to direct his own wordless feature, Baraka (1992).
It could be argued that these films are all pretty much the same: a fast-moving montage of extraordinary images, set to the music of Philip Glass (in Reggio’s films), or Michael Stearns, (in Fricke’s). These projects are symphonic in style, with sequences recurring like musical motifs, creating subtle layers of meaning.
Samsara took four years to make, with footage being harvested in 25 countries. Fricke and his producer Mark Magidson avoided digital cameras in favour of 70 mm film, which they saw as providing superior image quality. To the non-specialist eye, the results seem to support this idea, although the impact of the film lies as much in the editing process as in the capturing of raw material.
In the same manner as Baraka, this production presents a mix of natural phenomena and human rituals. The difference between the films is slight but noticeable: where Baraka drifted between images of beauty and despair, Samsara scores many small editorial points. We see female beauty defined by its artificiality, then cut to a factory where mannequins are made to look as realistic as possible. Prisoners dance in close formation in the courtyard of a gaol. The Pyramids and the Sphinx are hemmed in by a forest of shabby apartment blocks festooned with satellite dishes. The swarming workers at a factory are compared with the hordes of pilgrims descending on Mecca. In one startling sequence a man dressed in a business suit transforms himself into a kind of New Guinea mud man while seated at his office desk.
Such moments are obviously intended to be unsettling, but the overall feeling one takes away from this film is one of awe. It’s the SBS message: “the world is an amazing place,” and no matter how many times we may pause and reflect on some small, troublesome point, the show rolls on, plucking us from a disaster area and depositing us in a palace – or vice-versa. From the jungles we fly to the industrial zones, from the cities to the deserts. What makes the whole show even more mind-boggling is that it is shot entirely on location, with no CGI, and a budget of only US $4 million. Because it is a cycle, we feel there will be no end to this vertiginous sequence, merely a pause for a few years until the next wordless masterpiece arrives.

Life of Pi, USA/China, rated PG, 127 mins
Samsara, USA, rated PG, 102 mins

Published by the Australian Financial Review, January 5, 2013