Life of Pi was a bestseller. I did not read it. But I recently saw the film adapted from the novel by Ang Lee, the Taiwanese American director. This film won the 2013 Oscar for the best director. It is a wonderful movie. Breath-taking images: a feast for "optical gluttons" of my kind. A beautiful story, more complex than it seems at first sight: an enigma rather than a "message".
What is the plot of the movie? Pi Patel – his full first name, suggested by his uncle, crazy admirer of Parisian swimming pools, is Piscine Molitor… Pi, thus, is the son of the manager of a zoo in Pondicherry, India. The situation in the country forces the family into exile in Canada. They board a cargo ship, with a lot of the animals from the zoo. During a violent storm, the boat sinks. Pi finds himself in the middle of the ocean in a lifeboat, together with the ship's cook, a brute – played, with all the necessary vulgarity, by Depardieu – who had offended his father who asked for a vegetarian meal. Also in the boat are a young Japanese Buddhist injured during the wreck, who had tried to calm things down during the quarrel, and the mother of Pi. The cook terrorizes them and eventually kills the young Japanese and Pi's mom. Pi tries to protect her, without success, but he manages to kill the murderer.
But the film does not show all this. We learn it only at the end, while Pi Patel, years later, tells his story to a reporter who came to interview him. What the film shows us is what lies behind the scenes: what happens in the mind and heart of Pi. And this terrible experience is represented by animals, supposed to have boarded the boat during the wreck. There is a wounded zebra, who represents the young Buddhist, and a sweet female orangutan, who is the mother of Pi, and then a disgusting laughing hyena: the killer cook. And what about Pi? He is present under his usual appearance of a young athletic Indian, but also – and this is probably the key of the riddle – under that of a beautiful Bengal tiger. Pi, as a child, was fascinated by this tiger called Richard Parker.
It is only at the end of the movie that the mystery gets clearer. Pi, of whom the first moments of the film highlight the sweetness and spiritual thirst, had to find within himself the strength and cruelty of a tiger to kill the hyena, the disgusting killer cook. We witness, moreover, a slow process of domestication – or rather taming – of the tiger by the young Pi Patel. Stranded on a Mexican beach, exhausted, Pi sees the tiger Richard Parker, exhausted and emaciated too, disappear into the foliage of the forest bordering the seaside. He has now overcome the violent side of himself, which saved his life...
Beyond the beautiful entertainment of the movie, it is possible to discern a very profound and important teaching: by choosing not to stress the "outside" events, the film gives evidence that the most important realities are invisible. If the filmmaker, as the novelist, had merely decided to show the killings that took place on the boat, we would have witnessed a cruel, but rather trite, news item. By showing us – in the form of a parable – the storm that rages inside Pi, he reveals to us the mysteries of the human heart.
This is a lesson to be learned: if we want to understand the truth of the world, the truth of the events, the truth of our own lives, we have to cross the boundaries of the visible. So many people today – and this is probably often my case – have our noses "stuck in the mud." They see world events as an absurd and cruel drama, and their lives as a painful test. Nevertheless, as Christian Bobin writes: "A few seconds, isn’t it, are enough to live forever. ‘We feel and know that we are eternal’: this thought of Spinoza has the sweetness of a child sleeping in the back of a car. You and me, we have a ‘Roi Soleil’ (Sun King) sitting on his red throne in the large room of our heart. And sometimes, for a few seconds, this king, this joy-man, comes down from his throne and takes a few steps into the street. It's as simple as that." (Christian Bobin, L’homme-joie, Ed. L’Iconoclaste, 2012, p. 16-17).