My usual Sunday evening is going to my dad's, making tea (this evening being chicken breasts in a honey & mustard glaze with creamy leek and mushroom tagliatelle. That's right; all this and I cook, too. Sorry, ladies, I'm spoken for). This is also usually followed by a movie, a DVD I've taken over that I think my dad and Margaret should enjoy. Yes, I do look upon this partly as an educational endeavor, introducing them to good films they probably wouldn't seek out of their own accord and, I confess, success has been mixed. They loved Stranger Than Fiction and Little Miss Sunshine, were bored by The Royal Tenenbaums and confused by The Prestige. I think I'll hold off on Adaptation, Rashomon and Pan's Labyrinth.
Tonight we had a selection but went for Life of Pi, a film I saw at the cinema and loved. I know a lot of religious people came out of it and loved it because it "affirmed the importance of faith" and I know some atheists who hated it because they saw a new-agey, there-are-many-paths-to-god message. I think that both are wrong, although I guess also kind of right.
Firstly, I love this movie because of the quality of the film-making; as well as the visuals, which are utterly stunning, the pacing and storytelling are superb. I think this is a masterclass in film making. But I also love the story. Let me get this straight; I am a hard-line atheist, often anti-theist - I believe that the denial of critical thinking and reliance on moral authority that religion often teaches is a terrible burden on humanity. I think there is a clear correlation; that it is perfectly clear that parts of the world that are more in thrall to this sort of belief are less humans and civilised and those that have shaken it off more so. So, no bush-beating here.
And there is undoubtedly a religious message in this film, and the Yann Martell book upon which it is based (I had read the book before seeing the movie - yay for me - so it is possible that I see more layers than the more visual art form allows, although I think Ang Lee and scriptwriter David Magee do a superb job of conveying these). But I do think many people miss a subtlety which, frankly, isn't all that subtle. At the end, after the story of survival, all those weeks at see in a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, when asked if this is true, Pi gives another possibility. Perhaps it is all a metaphor. Perhaps the hyena was the vile ships cook and the zebra the Buddhist sailor and the orangutan his mother - and he was the tiger. The the cook allowed the sailor to die and used his flesh for bait to catch fish - maybe even ate some of it - and in an argument killed Pi's mother. And that Pi, the tiger, killed him. That the story the film has told us in those spectacular visuals is a metaphor that Pi has created to allow himself to survive, to live with the events. And when it is put to him bluntly, "But which is true?" Pi answers: "which story do you prefer?"
And this isn't a cop out. Pi's early life of absorbing the ideas of Hinduism and Christianity and Islam, following all of them equally, fits this perfectly. On one level it is saying that there is truth and there is a good story and that, all being equal, sometimes it is fine to go with the good story. But rather than be a pure expression of faith this leaves multiple interpretations. Pi, as the narrator who has laid this tale before us, is fully aware of the disconnect between that which is factual and those stories we tell ourselves to get by. Sometimes it may be better to accept the internally consistent tale that makes us feel better but is just a pretty story. This is by no means a clear-cut, comfortable ending from any viewpoint, and leaves me, at least, pondering how we construct the reality that we live through.
The fact that the film - and the book - can be interpreted in multiple ways, has multiple readings, for me simply reinforces how excellent it is.