The piece contains SPOILERS for "Life of Pi."
Ang Lee’s "Life of Pi," adapted from the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, is a gorgeous film, and its visual splendor is of a rare and special kind: there’s a real sense of joy here, both in the act of image-making and in the resulting images themselves. "Life of Pi" is set, for the most part, on a small lifeboat lost at sea, inhabited only by an adolescent boy (Suraj Sharma) and a full-grown Bengal tiger. Pi — our young hero — has just seen his family vanish under the waves one stormy night, along with the steamer ship that was to bear them to America with a zooful of animals in tow (hence Pi’s ferocious feline companion). Lee seems happily oblivious to all the limitations associated with filming a blockbuster on a lifeboat, gliding along the meager area available to him with effortless grace. There are some wondrous images on display here — a fluorescent orca whale leaping from the waves to trace a perfect arc across the sky, or the star-studded heavens reflected so perfectly in the sea that Pi’s lifeboat seems to hang in midair – and Lee’s camera takes them in with appropriately starry-eyed awe.
The catch is that "Life of Pi" aspires to be more than a showcase for its director’s visual chops: it wants to make us believe in God, and belief, in Yann Martel’s world, is an awfully flimsy thing. (Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS follow) In the film’s final minutes, an adult Pi, having just finished telling his story to an aspiring writer friend, introduces another. In this version, there are no tigers, no magic islands, no fluorescent orca whales. There’s hunger, murder, and bloody revenge; no redemption, only survival. No one can say for sure which story is true. "Which do you prefer?" Pi asks. The writer pauses. "The one with the tiger." Pi pauses significantly, then replies: "And so it goes with God."
When people say that they believe in God, though, they don't usually just mean that they'd prefer a world with God to one without Him. To believe that which you’d prefer is, quite literally, wishful thinking. Faith does consist of choosing one state of affairs over another, but it's about choosing not the one you’d prefer, but the one you take for truth: in fact, I’d argue that the faithful are distinguished in part by their capacity to believe some things they might not want to believe. The sort of truths that demand belief tend to be those that can’t be rationally proven; we need more than reason to believe, which might be why at the press conference for "Life of Pi" Martel characterized faith as "a need to believe something that is fundamentally unreasonable." The equivalent, in short, of believing a story involving giant glowing orca whales to one involving cabin fever and murder — because you’d really rather the first story be true, logic be damned.
God, or the idea of God, is inscrutable, unfathomable, and difficult — but not unreasonable. Faith demands a leap, but it is not a leap from logic into illogic. It’s as if, having guided us to a certain point, our rational faculties were to stop dead. We can’t take you any farther, they’d say — but they’d point to a speck far in the distance, and tell us to follow the indicated path. The faithful never throw reason to the wayside; they follow its lead even after they’ve left its explicit jurisdiction.
The point here is that, by setting faith up as a matter of preference, Martel doesn’t have to choose one out of several mutually exclusive religions: he can believe them all, simply by preferring that they’d all be the case. "How can you be a Christian, a Hindu, and a Muslim?" Pi’s friend asks. "Religion," he replies, "is a house with many rooms." The implication is that we get to build the house — that religion is, essentially, whatever we’d like it to be. In those moments when it reaches most desperately for profundity, "Life of Pi" ends up trading in these sorts of vague spiritual proclamations: adrift, like its hero, in an undifferentiated sea of preferences, fancies, and whims.
And that position — unmoored, unstable, even empty — ends up doing for Lee what it did for Pi: it opens up a specific way of seeing, an almost childlike receptiveness to the fantastic and the impossible. Perhaps "Life of Pi"'s lack of any visual inhibition, its willingness to submit to and luxuriate comfortably in images that defy expectations or even possibility (a human tooth lodged in a flower, a tiger pacing a raft, a glow-in-the-dark whale) stems from its philosophical weightlessness, from its conviction that faith is unbound by logic or rationality. To watch "Life of Pi" is, in some sense, to watch a grown man take that warm, fuzzy feeling he felt as a child in the presence of something incomprehensible, or at least impossible to empirically prove, and turn it into doctrine — and if he has to embrace a pretty shaky conception of faith from then on out, at least he has the consolation of getting to see reality as only a child can.
All of which goes to show that "it’s visually stunning, but…" can sometimes translate to "it’s visually stunning because…" — and that we might be forgiven in overlooking a film’s philosophical flimsiness if it means letting us do for a few hours what we’ve long since forgotten how to do: toss our reasoning aside, and gape in awe.
Max Nelson studies philosophy at Columbia University, where he is the co-founder of the undergraduate film journal Double Exposure. He thinks everyone should be excellent to one another. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.