Posted by: aediculaantinoi | July 12, 2013

The Life of Pi: Beautiful Film, Slippery Theology…

I saw this film in…April?!?…and have been meaning to do a write-up of it, because I think that it illustrates something that is relatively common in modern paganism, as well as the wider modern religious world when it comes to “spirituality.”


I saw the film on Blu-Ray, but didn’t see it in the cinema at all when it was released. I heard of the book well over ten years ago, and actually picked it up while I was in Ireland, and started to read it, but never got past the first chapter–it did seem interesting to me, but as often happens when one is working on a Ph.D., pleasurable reading often falls away relatively quickly, no matter how interesting some of it often is. (One of the few exceptions on that general principle during my doctoral program was the few Harry Potter books that came out, whereupon I reserved the weekend after to read it straight through…!?!)

For starters, I’ll say the two things that I think stick out the most about the film:

1) It is a visually beautiful film, very striking and intriguing and original, with some sights that I never would have expected to see in any film about anything. For the modern period, that’s relatively rare, and thus it deserves some recognition and appreciation for that.

Further, the actor did his own stunts, and wasted away slowly (but safely!) over the course of making the film, which meant that this film was visceral on a level that many others have not been before. The director, producers, actors, and other specialists for the film did a wonderful job in those respects.

2) It’s also one of the most tedious films I’ve ever seen. More than ninety minutes of it, while punctuated with the amazing visuals previously mentioned, and a few other tense moments, is very close to being drudgery. While the actual plot and circumstances of the narrative would likewise have been drudgery for the character of Pi, I’m not sure it’s exactly a cinematic triumph for the viewers to likewise feel that bored. As someone I know commented about having seen it in the cinema, “It was good, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t fall asleep a few times.” I didn’t fall asleep myself, but I came close–and given how difficult it tends to be for me to sleep even under the best of circumstances, that should tell you something. :/

If you want a plot summary, it goes something like this: a young Indian guy named Pi whose parents own a zoo explores three different religions (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam) and gets told he can’t do them all by people within each religion, as well as by his mostly atheist/scientist father. They fall on financial hard times, and sell the whole zoo to some Canadians. They are shipwrecked on the way, however, and only Pi and a few of the animals survive, including a tiger called Richard Parker. Much of the film is then the negotiations between Pi and Richard Parker to stay alive at sea and trust one another, which mostly involves Pi being outside the boat on a raft, then being in the boat, but then Richard Parker chases him out again, and then he’s in the boat, and then out of it, and so on and so forth…Then there might be some hallucinations…And, they eventually wash up in Mexico, whereupon the whole thing is told in retrospect to a Canadian guy in Toronto who is wanting to write a story. Hmm.

The entirety, however, is billed (both in the book and in the beginning of the film) as “a story that will make you believe in God.” Let’s read that sentence again: a story that will make you believe in God. That’s sort of a bold statement for any religion, and for any story. So, did it succeed? Well, for me, no, and not just because I already have particular religious commitments.

Without entirely ruining the film, the end of it comes down to a choice: “which story do you prefer?” Does one prefer horrific humanistic (in the sense of “strictly human,” not “friendly atheist” or “Italian intellectual rediscovery of Greek culture”) realism and Darwinian disaster, or religion and myth and allegory that is ultimately escapist fantasy? It doesn’t really amount to “making” one “believe in God,” then: it means “does one accept the world as it is,” or “does one retreat to imagination?” And, the latter option, which seems to be the preferred one of the characters in the film, is essentially to “believe in God,” according to this film.

Can you see how problematic this is, even on the surface, for anyone who actually has a religion that puts them in touch with how things actually are, even independent of the presence of the gods in such a world?

But, because of how the film goes, it then makes a further move in doing so, and it becomes a monist’s dream as well as a relativist’s fantasy. Even though the film sort of makes a stand against atheism (in a somewhat feeble way, as you can see by what I’ve said above), it does so in a way that many atheists do, not only by basically saying “If you embrace religion in the face of disaster, you’re embracing fantasy,” but it also essentially concludes that any religion and every religion is basically the same. Sure, the most mention ends up getting made of Hinduism because of Vishnu and the story of his fish avatar, but religion generally speaking gets phrased simply as “God,” which ends up coming off as more Christian monistic than anything.

And, that’s what I have trouble with overall in this film: too many people come from it and say “It’s deep!” which is one of the most unhelpful and useless phrases that I know of to be used in the English language. (It almost seems to me like those who use it are somewhat declaring that “I get this is important, but I just don’t understand it myself”; or, in other cases, stating this essentially separates a person from whatever experience might be taking place at the time that could, indeed, be quite profound…) It demonstrates how poorly many people understand, and thus cannot hardly think usefully about, almost any piece of art or popular culture that involves religion, and even worse, how poorly prepared most people are to think about religion at all. In the case of this film, I think the filmmakers as well as the original author of the book (Yann Martel, whose book has won awards) may not have realized the full implications of the narrative they were telling.

I would be curious to hear what others who have read the book or seen the film thought. I wouldn’t discourage people from seeing the film, by any means, but I would highly encourage those who do see it to think more about it than, perhaps, those who made it did as far as what it says theologically, and whether it succeeds or not in “making” the people who hear the story “believe in God.”


  1. I thought basically the exact same things after seeing this.

  2. I found the film to be an excellent treatise on writer-as-creator (“God,” if you want to be lazy about it), and the idea of how reliant you are on your narrator in any story. What if your narrator is completely unreliable? What if the narrator isn’t? How do you tell? What you do choose to believe in and not believe in, and how does that change a story? Have recently picked up the book to see if I have the same experience.

  3. I’ve been meaning to see this film since it came out, and I have it around somewhere to pick up, but admittedly, I’ve been lazy about it. After the Oscars fiasco, I haven’t had much urge to watch it. Considering your piece, however, I may have to attempt. (Admittedly, as a cinephile, I feel it important to watch in general, but now this gives me two reasons why.)

  4. hmm, i think the movie didn’t deliver its message all that effectively, but i understood it as saying that the metaphorical/religious story captured the experiential *truth* of what happened on the boat better than the plain facts did — that, in essence, the apparently empirical account lacked essential information.

    • That was also my own takeaway from the film, more or less.

  5. I’m afraid I’ve never read Martel’s book or seen the movie. My visceral response is to snort, “Oh, the book that was a total ripoff of Paulo Coelho?” and stomp off.

  6. I saw this film for the first time on the weekend and then happened upon your post through my weekly check in of The Wild Hunt. It’s interesting to read your feedback because to be honest, even as a pagan I actually completely forgot the declaration about believing in god at the start of the film,and that was what the whole point was. Perhaps, like others, it’s because it didn’t really drive home that that was what the aim was. In fact, once Pi is on the boat, other than a couple of moments where he declared to give himself to God in the face of death or disaster, I didn’t find it to centre around that at all. The frustrating part for me was at the very end, where he provides the two different stories. Just because you might prefer one to the other (that was the question he asked, which do you prefer?), doesn’t really matter in my opinion. The truth is the truth and reality is just that – sure, the lesson you might take away from a story, or a situation, or whatever, varies, but the actual happening does not. And as a person who enjoys fantasy in both books and movies, I think I would have preferred to watch the whole movie with the intention as the story shown being the real story, rather than an attempt to get you to wonder between this and that at the end. A beautiful movie, but one to make you ponder the meaning of life and god? I think not.

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