One is a grand, sea-borne spectacle, a master's first glorious foray into 3-D. The other, like its breakout star, is a furious miniature whose impact far outweighs its size. But both "Life of Pi" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" are fervently alive to the world of nature, of spirit — two halves of the same double helix.
Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), a spiritual wanderer stranded on a lifeboat somewhere in the Pacific, and Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), left largely to her own devices in a Louisiana Delta community suffering the slow inundation of rising seas, both bravely face a world of raging storms. Roaring forth their strength, each communes with the fantastical — nature as loud, bright, brazen force, frightening and painfully beautiful at once — and comes face to face with a future of natural disaster quickly becoming real. "Life of Pi" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild," with vastly different aesthetic approaches, nod at the same premonitions, childlike curiosity and rare understanding of the camera's power to show us what might otherwise be left unseen.
With "Life of Pi," director Ang Lee achieves a pioneering 3-D style, light and unobtrusive. In twenty years, or fifty, the technology will have moved on to bigger and better things. But we will recall Lee, along with Martin Scorsese (for the gorgeous, nostalgic "Hugo") as the D.W. Griffiths of the form. I don't discount James Cameron's "Avatar," but that film seemed designed for 3-D; the narrative necessities of "Life of Pi" force Lee to be subtler, using the depth of field to create multi-layered, fleet-footed compositions of which Renoir or Welles could be proud.
From its opening titles, amid a menagerie of exotic creatures, the film forges a rich aesthetic experience; a parade of flamingos becomes a forthright bloom of pink. Yet Lee is a careful craftsman, melding style and content to elevate "Life of Pi" above a stream of pretty pictures. When Pi, a vegetarian, kills his first fish, this beauty enters the story. It is not Sharma's performance in this moment that shows how much the act goes against everything Pi believes — it is the fish's otherworldly bioluminescence, flickering out into pallor.
With glowing jellies, peering meerkats, and the eyes of a Bengal tiger, "Life of Pi" narrows the space between nature and what some might call heaven. It is the breathing Earth that replenishes Pi's much-tested belief. "Doubt is useful," he'll recall. "It keeps faith a living thing." Pi endures his exile at sea, his knowledge that his family is lost, his momentary nightmare of bureaucracy, and emerges on the other side with his faith restored.
In this he resembles Hushpuppy, whose poetic stream-of-consciousness narrates "Beasts of the Southern Wild" through a child's dreamy perspective. Director Benh Zeitlin's vision of her world glows and buzzes, too: with sparklers splicing light from light, escaping into the dark; with the sheen of cracked crab; with the ambient hum of insects, leaves, and waves. She too must ride out the storm, a hurricane that threatens to fill The Bathtub for good, and stare down the beast that shadows her quest. That hers, the mythical aurox, lives only in the imagination makes it no less potent a force. Hushpuppy, like Pi, can only live by coming to terms with her emotional and physical environment.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" has come in for criticism as "disaster tourism," a valorization of poverty and a dangerous paean to those who court death and then need the government to help them pick up the pieces. But this is wrongheaded. The film doesn't celebrate poverty — it celebrates autonomy, whether in a community's choice to rebuild against the odds or a young girl's desire to let her hair grow out, untamed.
Happiness, at its root, may be cracked crab and cold beer, not well-kept lawns and big televisions. What The Bathtub lacks in amenities, it more than makes up for in spirit. Remember, Hushpuppy and her fellow Delta denizens are no more responsible for hurricanes and floods than Pi is for the sinking of his ship. They are not the ones who drive the cars, fly the planes, and keep the A/C on 65 throughout the Southern summer; they are not the ones who do all these things and then demand that gas stay below $4 and vote out the congresspeople who support a tax on carbon. We are.
In the end, it is her own encounter with bureaucracy, the relief workers who try to make her fit their image of a little girl, pigtails and all, that sends Hushpuppy on her final journey. "The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right," she says. Or, as Pi puts it, "I had to get back to the world, or die trying." And so she and her brethren march homeward, the score's soaring trumpets bearing them against the current. It is a moment no less miraculous than Pi's rediscovery of the world.
Other films this year may have been more tightly scripted, more fluidly framed, more realistic in their content, politics, and emotional bent. But "Life of Pi" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" will share the first spot on my year-end top ten list because none made me feel more deeply cinema's ability to magic into existence that which we can only believe in, or doubt.
Because Pi and Hushpuppy, survivors of shipwrecks great and small, never achieve, and never strive for, the power to tame nature, to know God. Instead, they test the waters of their own courage, and in the process bring together the layers of lived experience — animal, human, spiritual — into something that sounds like harmony.
"Life of Pi" is now playing in theaters nationwide. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is available today on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD. Catch TOH!'s interviews with Suraj Sharma and Benh Zeitlin here and here.