[Megaspoiler alert: reading this really will spoil your enjoyment of the film]
The story which Pi tells to the writer in this film is one which will apparently give the hearer faith in God. But after t-10 minutes I was puzzled: what was the point of this tale? Admittedly it was amazing to watch: a boy trying to survive in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger (and, to being with, a hyena, an orang-utang and a zebra) for company; it’s very exciting (because of the ever-present danger of death by hunger, thirst, storm or tiger), visually stunning, and imaginatively inspiring, particularly the floating island of meerkats, but what’s the point of it all?
And then we meet the Japanese insurance officials, trying to find out from the ship’s last survivor what happened; Pi has no idea why the ship sank, but the tale he tells is so impossible that the officials can’t put it into the record. So they ask him for the ‘truth’, and get another version of the story, where the animals are replaced by people, the tiger by Pi himself. Pi seems to give the pen-pushers this reverse allegory to help them do their jobs – after the previous hour or two we as viewers can’t at first accept that it’s actually what happened, but then we do, and it’s a little disappointing, that the tiger was not only unreal in the CGI sense, but was also unreal in what really happened to Pi, who’s clearly dealt with the loss, the violence and the cannibalism by this allegorisation. And where’s the God-proof?
But then, t-5, we return to the Canadian flat, Pi and the writer. Writer asks where’s the proof of God; Pi asks which version of his story he ‘prefers’ (nicely ambiguous); writer says the one with the tiger: qed.
The insurance officials had to have one version of the story, and we, the writer and Pi need the other.
Pi’s story is mythic, in that it breeds interpretations, ramifications. The zoo and the cargo ship are controlled versions of the lifeboat, the island of meerkats readily fixable, as Strawberry’s warren in Watership Down, onto any situation of deadly danger lurking behind an apparent paradise (the tooth inside the flower). Pi’s full name, Piscine, refers to a nice little version of the Pacific, and his memorising of hundreds of digits of the number pi must mean, er, something: that’s how well put together and mythic this story is…