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“Pi of the Tiger”
Grade: A- (SEE IT)

POET MARK DOTY asks in his “Meditation” of 2005: “Isn’t the great power of animal eyes that we can’t read them?”

It’s a profound question and the crux of Ang Lee’s dazzling adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, “Life of Pi.” The titular role is played by Suraj Sharma, in his screen debut, and growing up on the Bay of Bengal, Pi locks horns with his unspiritual father (also a zoo-owner in the Indian city of Pondicherry). When Pi gets too close to the Bengal tiger kept in a cage out back, his father admonishes: “The tiger is not your friend.  When you look into its eyes, you see only your own emotions reflected back at you.”  His father’s lesson is that the animal is not a projection of human feelings but something entirely other. To prove his point, he ties a goat to the bars of the cage so that his sons can see that nature is not human but viciously red in tooth and claw.  Due to a clerical error, the tiger has been named Richard Parker, which is the film’s central joke, but also a significant part of the philosophical problem on Pi’s plate.  Notions of the “other” arise from psychoanalytic theories of object relations; the Other signifies everything the Self is not and stands as an obstacle to unity and social cohesion. The animal may look human – it may even have a man’s name – but it is nothing of the sort.  How, then, will Pi learn to live alongside the unknown?

Because “Life of Pi” is a fable, its plot-line is easy to relay.  It’s also the ultimate fisherman’s tale inasmuch as it may all be made-up. The film’s frame-story involves an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrating his story of adventure to another storyteller, a young writer (played by Rafe Spall), inside his Montreal apartment.  As a child in Pondicherry, Pi was an omnivore when it came to world religions; he drifted from Christianity and Judaism to Hinduism and Islam.  What do you expect from a mystical little boy whose very name is an abstract mathematical equation?   On being a Catholic Hindu, Pi tells us: “We get to feel guilty in front of hundreds of gods.”

Pi proceeds to recount his father’s decision to abruptly move his family to Canada, animals and all, and the shipwreck that left him stranded on a lifeboat alongside a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and the dreaded tiger.  The biblical overtones should be obvious enough: here we have Pi’s Ark, Pi’s faith tested, and Pi’s Christ-like resilience in the face of godly abandonment and indifference.  This will be lost on children, which is part of the film’s versatility.  Kids will no doubt marvel at “Li of Pi” for years to come because of its technical achievements: incandescent jellyfish, torpedo-like flying fish, an island of meerkats and flesh-eating vegetation.  Adults, meanwhile, will prefer to see Pi’s plight as an allegory and regard the tiger, as William Blake once did, in symbolic terms.

Much has been made of its “Avatar”-like special effects, but “Life of Pi” is also consistent with James Cameron’s 2009 classic in other ways. “Avatar,” too, stages a battle between humans and the animal-like other (those blue dudes with dog-ears and tails in Cameron’s case). If the Other is something too often demonized and ultimately conquered, “Avatar” saw the corporate destruction of the Na’vi of Pandora as a tragedy.  “Life of Pi” doesn’t deny that the battle between self and other is a violent one, but it’s more interested in making peace with the beast.

As in “Brokeback Mountain” (Lee’s last great film), which forced American audiences to reckon with a form of romance they don’t normally see nor understand, “Life of Pi” looks into the abyss of all social relations.  In “Brokeback,” otherness resides in the unreadable eyes of the self-hating Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) while in “Life of Pi,” that same haunting quality is right there in the eye of the tiger. Lee, who is nothing if not unsentimental, refuses to anthropomorphize the four-hundred-and-fifty-pound man-eater and “Life of Pi” is better for it.  Had Disney produced Martel’s book, the film would have ended with Pi and Tiger singing a duet but here, the tiger only stares with indifference and, without a word, slinks back into the jungle.