Just Beneath the Surface

life-of-pi-tiger

I’ve been considering the various explanations of the film, “Life of Pi” and its meaning. My first impression was that this was a prototypical example of magical realism. Ang Lee’s direction captured the novel elegantly. The use of CGI was not distracting – the tiger and orangutan were portrayed believably. Then my friend, Mark, introduced me to his metalinguistic view – that Pi is a story about the power of story-telling. “Life of Pi” shows what happens when a writer who, after recently abandoning a novel he’s worked on for two years, interviews a man named Pi who tells the writer a strange, disturbing tale that is also wonderful but thoroughly implausible. The Writer does not fully believe. So Pi tells an “alternate” story based on the same events as the first, but which is not as fanciful. Pi then asks the writer, “Which story do you prefer?”

The first story is a fantasy about a boy and a tiger, shipwrecked and sharing a lifeboat in the Pacific for 277 days. The boy experiences strange events, visions of beauty and horror in the depths of the ocean and floating among the stars; he briefly stays on a floating, carnivorous island inhabited by thousands of meercats. Eventually, the boy is washed ashore in Mexico where he recovers. While in the hospital, the ship’s investigators question him about his lifeboat experiences. They don’t believe his story of sharing the lifeboat with a starving tiger so he tells a second story which is more realistic and also more troubling.

The writer, when asked which story he prefers, answers, “The one with the tiger.” Pi then responds, “so it is with God,” suggesting to the writer and the viewer that God prefers to communicate with fanciful, meaningful stories, even if the stories are not literally true. The power of Life of Pi owes more to imagination than to verisimilitude. The fundamental idea is that we humans are emotional creatures who respond to stories that resonate in us, whether fact-based or not.

A further consideration about the religious message in Life of Pi, and the truth of God and his interventions in our lives, considers all three faiths that young Pi explores. The Writer character, promised a story that would make him believe in God, questions adult Pi about the influence of each one. Pi struggles to reconcile the differences between faith interpretations – specifically Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, acknowledging each contains valuable elements, even as they tell different stories. What he knows is that faith elements helped him survive his ordeal at sea.

Pi does not believe that any of the world’s religions have cornered the market on the truth and his intention is not to proselytize a specific dogma. Rather, his stories are intended to help the Writer consider which version of the world he prefers. Is it the version where he makes his way, without regards to the mystical, or the other where he can accept a presence greater than himself? That writer, like the Japanese investigators and we viewers, choose the latter.

Setting aside the story’s religious elements, an alternative theory takes a psychological perspective. And, as a psychologist, this perspective resonates with me. The characters in both stories, animals and people, represent various elements of the self – the brute, the innocent, the seeker, the protector. It is the raft, something Pi constructs himself and where he must retreat in order to save himself from the malevolent tiger, that represents faith. Does Pi truly co-exist with the tiger for those 227 days? Or is the animal story a defense mechanism that allows Pi to survive the rescue? To be able to live with the memory of the horrors he experienced with the others who survived, only for awhile?

Life of Pi is a moving story. And it is effective in its ability to reveal without showing, those elements of faith and survival that lie for all of us, regardless of our disparate experiences, just beneath the surface of our told stories.

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