Engage with culture without disengaging your faith.
Genre: Adventure/drama (2012)
Rating: PG (mild survival themes)
Length: 120 minutes
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: David Magee (based on best selling novel by Yann Martel)
The film is about a 16-year old boy named Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel. When Pi is 16, his father decides to close the zoo he runs in Pondicherry and move the family to Canada, planning to sell the zoo animals to ensure a good future for his children. Pi is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and is stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The story is told as a narrative by the adult Pi, now living in Canada, who is approached by a novelist referred to him by his a family friend, believing that Pi’s life story would make a great book.
Questions for discussion
Some general questions might provide enough framework for you to discuss the movie:
- What stood out as the main points/highlights in the movie?
- What themes are explored?
- What assumptions were embedded in the story?
- What challenged you? What questions did it raise for you
- Are there aspects of the story that resonated with your own experience or with the experience of others in a similar situation?
- Are there biblical or theological themes or characters that come to mind?
There are so many discussion points raised in the book and the film. The following provides some particular aspects that could be explored. Feel free to use these ideas as a catalyst for further discussion and reflection.
Belief in God
There are many paths to enlightenment. Be sure to take the one with a heart – Lao Tzu
Pi’s religious beliefs and love of God are central to his sense of being. He is not constrained by religious divisions, and does not see a need to limit oneself to one pathway. He is comfortable to practice faith as a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. On the other hand, his father is a ‘rationalist’ with no time for religious life and rituals. Even in Pi’s struggle for survival, when his physical needs are his primary concern, he still finds comfort and courage from his belief in God. His study, with dual majors in religion and zoology, also shows a lack of tension between faith and science. How do you respond to Pi’s fluidity in religious belief, undergirded by a sincere love of God? In what ways might the ‘choose your own’ spirituality liberate, and in what ways may it be problematic?
What is truth?
In the final scene, Pi gives an account of his adventures to Japanese officials. In one story he recounts what the viewer has seen. In the second, he parallels his experiences with ‘Richard Parker’ where he himself becomes the one who has killed and who steals food. Perhaps it is the second story that is ‘truth’ – revealing Pi’s desperate instinct to survive, and the first is simply his sanitized version that he tells to keep his own sense of ‘self’ intact. But since neither story can be proven, it’s useless to frame the question, ‘what is truth?’ Perhaps both stories are compensatory? He asks the Japanese officials which of his two stories they preferred, since neither can be proven, and sees no reason why they should not believe the better story. One can choose to believe ‘the better story’ in the same way one can choose to believe in God as the ‘better story’, of hope over despair, of courage over cowardice, of compassion over contempt. The viewer (and reader) is faced with the same choice.
Pi has no problems with ‘relative truth’, and senses intuitively that truth is not absolute. There is an aspect of invention in all “truths” and “facts,” because everyone is observing everything from their own perspective. One reviewer asked, ‘Why do we choose to believe in reality when it is illusion that keeps us alive?’ In what ways does this ‘fluidity’ in truth allow generosity of spirit, and in what ways may it be problematic?
Reason and faith – a foolish dichotomy?
Discuss this comment: ‘Life of Pi asks the same thing of spirituality as a mathematician might ask of the symbol PI – what is PI really? At its core, we only know PI to be an unresolved quantity. But more important than what PI is, we understand what PI does so we are able to put this unresolved quantity to work for us. The spirituality in Life of Pi comes to us as an unresolved quantity. We are asked to focus on the utility of a religious narrative rather than getting tangled in the “irresolvable essence” which Reason might demand of us’. (David Allred)
Survival struggles trump religious belief
Pi’s moral and religious convictions are tested at sea – he must eat meat, and he must take life. Both are contrary to his views before the disaster but as made clear in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, survival often trumps belief and morality. In disasters and wars, we know people behave in ways that may be contrary to their usual behaviour. Yet, others behave in ways that display the human spirit at its best – courage, selflessness etc. Perhaps Pi’s concerns to help ‘Richard Parker’ is one example of this? What other factors might determine the way a person will behave when put to the test?
The nature of freedom
The zoo animals provide a lens to reflect on human freedom. While people do not usually live in cages (though thousands live in tents in refugee camps for many years) nor contained by fences (though some are constrained by divisions like the huge boundary fence in Bethlehem, borders between countries and in the DMZ), people’s freedom may still be limited by having to source food and water, and find safe places to live. People in western countries with ease of access to basic necessities will have more freedom than people in countries and situations (such as war and conflict), but may have other restrictions on their freedom – education, social, isolation, sexuality and gender restrictions, racial, emotional, psychological etc. What is the nature of freedom?
A guiding narrative
‘In many ways, culture is adrift on the sea of Rationalism. Reason attempts to segregate our habitats by way of reductionist thinking. It’s true, Pi needed reason to survive, but to give survival meaning, he needed something much different. He needed a guiding narrative. I think most of us know what that feels like’. (David Allred). Discuss the assertion that culture may be ‘adrift on the sea of Rationalism’ and that we may need a ‘guiding narrative’ to shape meaning. In what ways do the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures serve as guiding narratives for faith (as distinct from ‘historical’ or even ‘rational’ documents)? How does this insight affect the way we read and engage with them?
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© Rev Sandy Boyce 11th January 2013 Pilgrim Uniting Church.
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