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Ang Lee's "Life of Pi"

An Exquisite Irrationality

by KATHLEEN PEINE

Looking at the movie poster and ads for the new movie “The Life of Pi” might give one the impression that this film is some sort of hokey, after-school adventure- a movie best left unseen, but to miss this luscious and original offering would be a tremendous mistake. It’s generally a safe bet to avoid films that are available in 3D- from what I’ve seen, this is generally a hype that attempts to transcend serious shortcomings in story. Again, in the case of this film, that assumption is challenged and discarded.

I would normally never have opted to see the 3D version of this movie, but it just happened to be the showing available at the time we arrived. It’s difficult to get a teenage daughter to see a movie with you, so you have to move quickly when the opportunity presents itself. I was rewarded with “You know, most of my friends wouldn’t be seen with their mother at the movies. They think their moms are losers.”  I am a loser, but it’s always nice if someone thinks otherwise, even for a moment.

So we land at the theater and grudgingly go with the 3D “experience”.

The film is about a young man named Piscine Patel- the unfortunate pronunciation of his first name (derived from a stunningly clear French swimming pool) sounds enough like pissing, that the boy adopts “Pi” as his first name.  The movie is the descendant of a lovely book which was rejected about five times. Piis raised in a beautiful little enclave in India, an area that the French occupied for a time. His father is a zookeeper, and young Pi grows up in an idyllic environment. The garden-like atmosphere lends itself to retrospection, and Pi comically adopts all of the world’s large religions as he fumbles through the question of science versus the soul. It’s a fairly straight forward tale at this point, but after viewing the entire film, you will think back to the conversations and settings and realize that this film has layer upon layer of symbolism . It’s a richly crafted tale that never allows one to know a final truth, much like life.

Without spoiling the movie, I think I can say that that it moves into a beautiful and strange phase when Pi’s family sets off on a Japanese cargo ship to Canada. All of the animals are loaded up as well, as the family is sent towards a new life, deemed necessary by Pi’s scientific minded father. Disaster ensues when a horrific storm sends the cargo ship to the bottom of the sea; Pi is cast adrift in a lifeboat with unlikely companions, one of which is named Richard Parker. Richard Parker is not what you think he might be (on so many levels).

The film was directed by Ang Lee and due to this fact alone, you know that the film is going to be gorgeous. One of the most glorious filmed moments that I have ever witnessed was a moment of bio-luminescent grandeur.I had to rethink all my negative assumptions about the 3D technology as it made the scene tap into the wondrous parts of the brain which creates dreams and nightmares. Nighttime in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, the light from chemical reactions create a mystical world- but with a notable reminder that the beauty of nature comes with a terrifying and indifferent strength. I’ll admit, the film owned me after that bio-luminescent scene.

I’m struck with the fact that the light comes from a scientific chemical reaction, but the effect strikes the soul- magnifying the contrasting themes of the film and the impossibility of human ability to ever separate one from the other.

Pi’s mother represents the mystical, soulful pull and his father is about the analytical. The mixture produces something irrational, like “Pi”. You can never know the end of the number pi, yet it moves forward through time, forever.

So I’ve told you in a slight way (so as not to ruin anything) that this is a film about an Indian teenager who is thrust into the Pacific Ocean on a life raft. He is not alone, he has Richard Parker. And I’ve mentioned the sheer beauty of the film. I’ve never seen anything so mesmerizing. It’s a play of light on possibilities and holding conflicting realities in one’s mind at the same time. This is unlike any movie you’ve seen.

A middle aged Pi, played by Irfan Khan, tells his story to a dejected author who has purposefully sought him out because he has been told that Pi has a story that will make him believe in God. In the end, the author does come to believe in “God” or at least the version of events that God selects, as according to Pi. Oddly enough, this isn’t a study in deity worship because the ending is a subtle bombshell which will certainly roll around in your mind days later. What is real, what is irrational? Is simply believing enough? You can’t ever know, just as you’ll never reach the end of the number Pi. Don’t think that you have to believe in anything to find this film satisfying as it is not a religious polemic.

This ending is perhaps the only “irrational” denouement I’ve come across in a film, and for me it was absolutely transcendent.

In “Life of Pi” irrationality abounds, and it is exquisite.

Kathleen Peine is a writer who resides in the US Midwest. She can be reached for comment at kathypeine@gmail.com