2012 seemed to be an exceptional year for inarguably beautiful, mainstream films with questionable substance. Prometheus, Cloud Atlas, Skyfall, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey shone resplendent on our screens and, unfortunately, often failed to illuminate our spirits. Whether or not these were spectacular films, they were certainly spectacles of the highest cinematic order.
Life of Pi is perhaps the most spectacular of all. Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's bestselling book is a visual wonder. Lee's patient camera is a perfect compliment to 3D's attempts at immersion. Lee allows the viewer time to sink into each image and marvel at the gentle interplay of the light he has either captured or rendered. Life of Pi is a feast for the eyes.
Life of Pi's story is also propulsive. Storms, ship wrecks, and cinema's most ferocious tiger since Shere Khan make for a suspenseful and surprising tale of high-seas survival. The film moves steadily from wonder to wonder and peril to peril, never failing to entertain.
Pi, the story's protagonist, is trying to maintain both his life and his faith through his ordeal. The movie is explicitly about faith as "belief in god." Life of Pi goes out of its way to establish its hero as a multi-religious seeker. Pi is born Hindu, attaches to Christianity (not "converts" in the traditional sense), and is a practicing Muslim. There are even hints that he is also a Talmudic scholar. The film is clear - Pi is meant to represent all humankind's search for the divine.
The film tries very deliberately to highlight what is best about each dominant world religion. In doing so, it oversimplifies each as well, but it is not trying to be "about" any religion (or all religions) in particular. It wants to be about, and support, faith in general.
Because Reel Spirituality is an initiative of Christian theology, and because I am a Christian, I'll deal briefly with the way Life of Pi handles Christ. I'm sure film-focused representatives of other faiths would treat the depictions of their religions similarly.
When Pi comes to Christ, he wrestles with Christ's incarnation and substitutionary atonement for our sins. Often in movies, Christianity is presented as mere pastiche, as religion in general and the worst aspects of a religious orientation at that. There are other understandings of what God accomplished via Christ's incarnation and death throughout historic, orthodox Christian thought, not to mention the game-changer that is Christ's resurrection, but I commend Life of Pi for exploring, even briefly, the most dominant form of Christian theology in the modern world. We can hardly expect others to tell our story for us. Perhaps we Christians should even be a bit humbled that an "un-baptized" movie was able to communicate a small part of our story better than we're often able.
Commendably, Life of Pi is not afraid to test its hero's multi-faceted faith. Notice the moments in which Pi believes he "sees" god. God is revealed in moments of distress. Pi encounters the divine in the storm, and he sees god's guiding hand in the things that almost kill him, like his big cat companion.
In addition to being thematically about "faith", Life of Pi is a story of survival, and so it is a story about Life, capital "L," as well, a life sustained by faith, sustained by god. Pi seems to be always perilously suspended between life and death. The film's most beautiful moments constantly turn to be its most harrowing, that pesky tiger again being the most obvious example.
Overall then, Life of Pi celebrates the difficulty of a life of faith. Pi welcomes the trial, because it is in the trial that faith's true value is proven. The film is theologically shallow in the particularities of the faith systems it features. In its dealing with faith in general, however, the film is as rich as it is cinematically resplendent. In Life of Pi, the world is so very big, we are each so very small, somehow we are sustained, and that is reason enough to believe in god.