Awards Watch: “Life of Pi”

 

In this series, I look at some of the major players in the 2012 awards race and analyze their changes at taking home some shiny trophies.

 

“Life of Pi” should receive just as much recognition for its spiritual themes as for its groundbreaking visuals

 

Trying to describe the magic of “Life of Pi” with words is like explaining Aurora Borealis by piecing together strips of colored cloth and waving them through the air. There is a simple magic here that is so very rare in mainstreamHollywood, a magic that should serve the film well this awards season.

The basic story follows Pi, an Indian boy whose father runs a zoo. During a move from India to Canada, where the zoo is being relocated, the ship the family is traveling on is capsized and Pi ends up in a lifeboat with an odd assortment of animals, including Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger.

At first, Pi tries his best not to get eaten by Richard Parker, but the two ultimately form a bond through a series of events that are never anything short of visually stunning. The film is almost certain to win a few statues for technical awards. Comparisons to “Avatar” are common, but I think even that is not enough to describe the visual variety and inventiveness on display here. With everything from a giant whale to a school of flying fish to an island full of meerkats, the visuals on display are almost unprecedented. The film even looks great in 3-D, a rarity for such an effects-heavy film. Like “Avatar,” it was shot in 3-D, and the results are immediately apparent.

But, just as refreshing as the visuals are the themes and characters through which the story is told. I’ve never read the original book, but I can imagine why it was considered un-filmable by many. How to do justice to a story of such surging spiritual power? The film is ultimately about keeping faith in a higher power through the storms of life. For Pi, this higher power takes many forms. He is raise to pray to the Indian god Vishnu, but appreciates the prayer practices of Muslims and the personal relationship of Jesus Christ. Early in the film, Pi’s atheist father criticizes him for his winner-takes-all spiritual practices, arguing that science has provided all we need to know about the universe. Pi’s mother replies, “Yes, science may be able to explain what is out there, but not what is in here.” As she points to her heart, we realize this is a rare and special kind of film, one that sees our spiritual journey not as an optional adventure, but one that is crucial to our humanity.

As Pi’s adventure takes him to some dangerous places, Pi has his moments of doubt. He has his moments where he wants to give up on God. But he doesn’t. He relies on the miracle of faith, something that, indeed, science or the ingenuity of man can never explain. A magnificent ending twist reveals what we have already suspected all along: faith can not exist apart from story. A journey of faith necessitates coming and going, growth in the process of discovery. The ability to admit when you’re wrong without sacrificing your core values and beliefs. It seems simple, but it’s not a story Hollywood seems often willing to tell.

I think awards committees may feel refreshed by this focus, but 2012 was a year inundated with spiritually themed movies, and “Pi” may be somewhat forgotten. I sincerely hope not.  Here’s hoping it will be at least nominated for some big awards (best film and director nods) in addition to its technical accolades, because Hollywood needs to tell more stories like this. Stories that keep us looking up in the midst of the storms of life.

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