November 21, 2012

Seascape Is Exquisite Backdrop for Spiritual Survival Tale

DO NOT FORSAKE ME IN MY HOUR OF NEED: Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) prays in desperation to his three religions to ask for help in surviving this terrible natural catastrophe which leaves him stranded in the middle of the Pacific ocean with a Bengal tiger. Pi and his parents were en-route to Canada with their family’s zoo, when their cargo ship capsized in the terrible storm which hit them.

Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) was raised in the Hindu faith before converting to Catholicism and Islamism all on his own. The 16-year-old’s parents reacted differently to the changes in the boy’s unorthodox behavior which included going to church and praying facing east five times a day.

His frustrated father (Adil Hussain) warned, “You cannot follow three religions at the same time,” while his more tolerant mother (Tabu) told him that “Science cannot teach what is in here,” touching her heart. Both shrugged it off as probably just a passing phase, since they were busy planning the big move of the family household and zoo from India to Canada.

However, tragedy strikes en route, when their cargo ship capsizes and sinks in the middle of the Pacific, leaving Pi, the sole human survivor, in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Will the religious believer remain true to his lofty ideals while playing out the faith-testing hand he’s suddenly been dealt?

That’s the pressing question posed in Life of Pi, a visually captivating tale of spirituality and survival. Directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), the movie was shot against a series of exquisite seascapes that look like glorious, hand-painted, pastel panoramas.

After the occurrence of the shipwreck, the picture is a one-man show, similar to Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000). However, in this film the protagonist has to figure out how to coexist peacefully in very close quarters with a tiger who’d probably prefer to make him its next meal.

The burden of carrying the film falls on the shoulders of first-time actor Suraj Sharma, who does a magnificent job of conveying the existential angst of the beleaguered, ever-exasperated title character.

This richly textured adaptation will undoubtedly be a hit with fans of the Yann Martel best-seller upon which it’s based, as well as with audience members of any age who are looking for an entertaining movie. Of interest is that during an opening sequence of this flashback film, the audience is told that what is about to unfold is a story that will make you believe in God.

For all its religious overtones, however, the thrust of the production is less about an attempt to convert disbelievers than around Ang Lee’s brilliant use of the screen as a cinematic canvas to narrate a compelling story. The film is a critic and crowd pleaser that will be impossible to forget when Academy Award season comes around.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mature themes and scary action sequences. In English, French, and Japanese with subtitles. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox