Life of Pi and religion as figgy pudding

What would you expect from a movie that promises to make you “believe in God?” Maybe a little God?

That’s what a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) has been told about the life story of Pi Patel – that it will make him believe in God. And so, at the beginning of Life of Pi, he seeks out the adult Patel (Irrfan Khan) and asks him to share this revelatory tale. It’s a whopper, for sure – about a boy who grew up in a zoo in India, collected world religions for a hobby and found himself stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger as a young man. But there’s nothing of substance about faith of any kind. Vague and blurry – like the woozy, computer-generated imagery that dominates its visual scheme – Life of Pi is one of those spiritually cozy movies that wants you to believe in little more than … belief.

The movie’s softness is challenged early on by one of its own characters. As the young Pi (Ayush Tandon) dabbles in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, his irreligious father (Adil Hussain) looks on with disapproval, telling him, “Believing in everything at the same time is the same as not believing in anything at all.” The movie treats this sentiment as a symptom of unenlightened repression, but it’s a notion someone like G.K. Chesterton would likely have appreciated.

Still, Life of Pi deserves a chance to make its case for syncretism. And the central section seems set up to do just that. Now a teen (Suraj Sharma), Pi travels aboard a ship with his family and the zoo's animals, which they hope to sell in order to start a new life in Canada. When a storm capsizes the vessel, Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with no other human survivors. Alone and adrift, Pi seems primed for soul-searching of the first order.

But that’s not what we get. Instead, director Ang Lee piles on the visual wonder. We get shots of the placid sea, in which the glassy water and rosy sky merge, and a psychedelic, underwater tour that seems modeled after nothing less than the creation sequence in The Tree of Life. It’s all a bit soft and gooey for my taste, like half-baked figgy pudding. We’re meant to be wowed by the beauty of (faux) nature and, in response, I guess, you know, believe.

There is a storm sequence in which Pi’s faith struggle becomes a bit more literal. As the winds rage and the rain pelts, Pi howls back at the sky, claiming he sees God. But we don’t. More importantly, we never learn what Pi means. The movie never tells us what it is that he believes. Such a story lacks even the conviction of syncretism, which takes a little of this and a little of that and at least adds up to something. Life of Pi gives us nothing while pretending to hold the universe in the palm of its hand.

Francis Schaeffer spoke of this sort of vagueness in a 1982 address to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America. Though discussing denominational - rather than faith - differences, he made this larger observation: “The spirit of our age is syncretism in all the areas of life, in all the areas of thought. The spirit of our age is syncretism, and thus accommodation is the rule. The spirit of our age is the age of syncretism in contrast in truth versus error; and this being so, accommodation is the common mentality.”

This lack of conviction is a recurring problem with faith films (not the Fireproof, but the Hollywood variety). Earlier this year, Prometheus threw out all sorts of faithy elements – even that old standby, a cross necklace -  but ultimately used God as a MacGuffin. Such pictures can’t be pinned down because they don’t want to be. These movies don’t really care about faith; they just want us to feel that we've seen a story about "faith" in some vague way.

On those uninspired terms, Life of Pi succeeds.

Comments (17)

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So I've been seeing this argument a lot (Dana Stevens and Drew McWeeny's reviews come to mind), where critics are characterizing LIFE OF PI's themes as empty or half-baked, particularly the religious theme. I don't think this is the case. I think the ideas in this film are so big and broad, similar to something like THE MASTER or TREE OF LIFE or even 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, it's bound to leave some of us unsatisfied. But LIFE OF PI is definitely giving us something to chew on; it's just maybe not what you were looking for. This film is much more interested in WHY Pi believes rather than WHAT Pi believes.

[SPOILERS AHEAD] Essentially, the whole story of LIFE OF PI can be seen as a confirmation of syncretism, how mish-mashing disparate beliefs together helps Pi understand and cope with the realities of the world. In the beginning of the film, we see Pi finding meaning in aspects of different belief systems. His first religion, Hinduism, is itself a collection of "superheroes", so we understand the basis for why Pi is interested in collecting a superteam of religious ideas. This idea is further reflected in the zoo, being a collection of organisms placed in a wholly artificial environment for the benefit of entertainment and knowledge gathering. Pi's story is itself a potpurri of action, adventure, comedy romance involving the interaction of a hodgepodge of animals. The reveal at the end of the film suggests (this is just one interpretation) that Pi is using his story as a coping mechanism to make sense of the tragedy of his experience. He sees syncretism of story as an answer to life's mystery and inherent darkness. This is the key that gives us insight into Pi's religious belief system ("And so it goes with God"). What is so empty about that?

But again, this is just one interpretation of a thematically rich film. The meditation on the relationship between humans and animals is just as fulfilling, in my opinion.
I like this defense Joshua. You've almost convinced me. I guess it comes back to the film's "promise" for me. By blatantly saying this is a tale that will make its hearer believe in God, the movie is setting the bar for itself. So to then just give me the why - because sunsets on the ocean are pretty, etc. - without the what, I'm left wanting. We need to know what Pi believes in, not just that he believes.

As for the other films you mention - especially The Tree of Life and 2001 - those are purposefully open-ended to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. Life of Pi pretends to be full, but is empty.
Argh, so close! I think a lot of people got hung up on that "this story will make you believe in God" line, to the point where it completely turned people off. I guess I didn't take it so literally; I just interpreted it as "If you like this story I'm telling you, you have reason to believe in God." Of course, that interpretation requires knowledge of the ending, so maybe I benefited from reading the book beforehand?

But I don't think we need to know exactly what Pi believes in. I think the movie addresses that critique with the quote that you mention, “Believing in everything at the same time is the same as not believing in anything at all.” The film then goes on to argue, through its story, that Pi ultimately believes in the power of storytelling. And that's not nothing--it got him through a horrific ordeal! I'm sure Pi would like to say to his dad, "Look where my scattered beliefs got me!"
I saw the film with my oldest son (19) and it landed us smack in the middle of a great conversation. He felt the story was more about the importance of belief and faith even when things are difficult. I felt that it had a sort of Joseph Campbell vibe to it (the power of myth, the reason humans need a faith story, etc) but one thing I did notice is that the adult Pi identifies himself as Christian a couple of times. It seemed like a very delicate acknowledgement that while he searched every faith for something, he ultimately found it in Jesus. The scene with the buffoon priest unable to answer the simplest question frustrated me, but then rang true. Too many Christians would say pretty much the same thing. But the idea that Jesus lived, and suffered, so that we could identify with him was powerful. It was almost a foreshadow of the suffering Pi would soon endure.

I was left wondering which story at the end was the true one - the tiger version or the other. If it was the other, then the whole thing, in a Campbellian way, suggests that faith is just a coping mechanism. If the tiger version was true then maybe the point is that this world of death is the shadow world. But regardless, it definitely served as an excellent discussion film about big issues, and I think any art that does that is valuable.

I loved the floating island of deadly weeds. What a powerful picture of temptation.
This is neither here nor there with regards to the movie. However, if the movie (which I have not seen) treats religion and Pi's relationship to it as the book (which I have just finished) does, it will be a treatment reflective of some part of the public's general engagement of God: incredibly maddening, yet fair. In reading the book, as (I suspect I will) in watching the movie, I discarded the non-commitment to honest religious pursuit and (*really*) enjoyed the story.

P.S. As 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie evar, I take some umbrage to the comparisons here; 2001, taken properly with the book and the background of the score, most notably Also Sprach Zarathustra, has no such confusion about or syncretism within its religious (or irreligious) message.
I just saw this movie, and I think it very insulting to faith and religion. To me, the message is pretty clearly "all that matters is that you believe in something, anything." As a boy, Pi embraces any religion, as Josh says here, he collects them as a hobby. It's treated as comedy. It seemed like religion was nothing but bs to the movie. I was astonished that this was not something that people were insulted by.
How's this for syncretism, I find the explanation to be between your two takes. First, the film lacks any discernible "system" of belief that Pi engages in, and therefore (inherently) lacks the specificty needed to truly say (underlined) something.

Second, the film is valuable as a parable showing why people believe. We see the plea in every book or article from the "New Atheist" camp, who cannot see why people cling on to their primitive notions of God. The reason is that for many it is not just a crutch or opium, it is the very lens they see the world through and abandoning their belief is akin to stranding them out in the ocean with no guide or hope.

Lastly, a more troubling issue is the way the film deals with truth. In order to value syncretism, you must devalue truth. And the film seems to be saying, whatever works, and if you need to sacrifice your pursuit of what is true to rest and be comfortable with a comforting lie, then go for it. This film is a long advertisement for the Blue Pill in the Matrix. Hopefully they will address Pi's search for truth in the sequel, "The Continued Life of Pi: There's Just a Gorilla Flying This Plane!"
I like your second point here, Tristram. If nothing else, the movie does make Pi's desire to be a believer feel quite urgent and genuine (in that way it's not dissimilar to the faith journey of Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell in The Master).
I completely agree. I heard many people confused by the motorcycle scene, but I feel like in that scene we see (and Quell)experiences the fundamental difference between himself and "the Master". While watching "the Master's" ride I felt like I was watching a man on a joyride. He thought of the game and set the rules (pick a point, get there as fast as you can) yet didn't live up to them. Watching Quell ride I was left thinking, "There is a man who has nothing to lose and is truly living the rules of the game out to the fullest (even "the Master" remarks on how fast he is going. Of course Quell would choose that time to disappear, he finally was faced with "the Master's" ultimate lack of commitment, he may have believed (or wanted to believe what he was saying) but he did not need it to be true the way Quell felt it did. Anyway, all that to just agree with you, but didn't you find The Master richer because of it's specificity of journey? Quell dove into the cult, and I like that we got to examine one man's journey with one belief system. Not a boy's easy collection of beliefs and how he synthesizes them with his later difficult circumstances.
Joshua,

I see what you are doing - but as you may have learnt, you are talking to an audience that seeks material that confirms their pre-existing beliefs, not an audience that is open to opening up their belief systems.

When we cling to a certain book or a certain spiritual figure in order to define ourselves, we will fail to see the truth that can exist separately from those books and figures. In that respect, the need to believe that your religion is "superior" to another will keep you in the dark if there is a grain of salt in multiple stories, particularly if reality is too complicated to be captured by any one story.

 

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