It’s a brave film that decides to start with a declaration that this story will make you believe in God. Admittedly, those words are directed to the in-built audience of Rafe Spall, listening to the adult Pi Patel telling his tale of floating across the Pacific, but his character is so nebulous as to require little more than an occasional smile, and the credited description of ‘writer’ instead of a name. It is us the cinema audience that the film is addressing with that statement, and us that it wants to win over with its wonder, its majestic seascapes and its mostly CGI-ed Bengal tiger.
Many reviews have dwelt on that tiger, and they’re not wrong. It is hard to remember the last time a real animal (not able to talk, not even anthropomorphised) took so much of centre stage in a film without a David Attenborough voiceover. Richard Parker – for such is this tiger’s name – is a fearsome creation of pixels and bared teeth, sharing Pi’s lifeboat and threatening his life even as he provides a lifeline to sanity in the shape of a companion. This is no cuddly stuffed animal, no cute herbivore to keep our lost hero company, but a bewildered hunting beast stranded in the middle of a hostile sea with one last human meal that just keeps getting away from it.
The film is filled with other wonders of CGI, 3D filming and beautifully composed shots of an ocean that ranges from a devouring power of nature to a still mirror reflecting the glories of sunrise, from an endless emptiness of dark water to a bountiful richness of life beneath its surface. There are occasional moments when the computerised edges of the illusion show through, but these mostly occur around the more fantastic elements of the story – particularly a floating island with inexplicable meerkats encountered late on – and so are easily absorbed. In the main, this is a stunningly beautiful film that challenges the concept of an ‘unfilmable’ story.
Beyond the special effects and directorial spectacle, however, credit must also go to the actors for bringing out the story’s soul. Pi himself is played by four actors at different ages, and a good 80% of the (human) acting in the whole film must be carried by Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan as the shipwrecked teenage Pi and the adult Pi telling his story. Sharma turns in an excellent performance of heartbreak, wonder, despair and occasional dry wit, more than enough to combat the fact that he is playing against an empty ocean and an uncommunicative tiger. He also does a wonderful job with the deeper emotional moments that necessarily arise from the rest of his family dying in the shipwreck that strands him at sea, particularly one scene at the end of the film that could have felt manipulative but is instead just starkly painful. Irrfan Khan offers an equally compelling but much quieter performance as the adult Pi, looking back on his own story and attempting to relate it in a way that will show us the truth of his experience.
In the end, though, that is a question that the film leaves to us. Will Pi’s story make you believe in God? Probably not, unless you’re already inclined that way, as he is shown to be. Will it show you the reasons why he chooses to believe? Yes. And as it does so by dwelling on the wonders of the world, embedded in the wonders of storytelling and film-making, it’s hard to imagine even the most churlish atheist begrudging it that.