Life of Pi has long since made it triumphant march through the theatres, so if you have not seen it, your only decision at this point is whether it is worth a rental. It is.
Beautifully filmed and well-acted, it is one of those rare movies capable of capturing the interest of everyone in the room, ranging from my two-year old son to his grandmother (about whose age I will not venture to speculate). And, what is even more rare: there is no objectionable material in the movie. Nothing, that is, except for its philosophical elevation of beauty over truth. There is plenty to object to in that, though it may not be immediately obvious why you should do so. I’ll say a word on that at the end.
If you cheered during the 1996 movie Emma when Mr. Knightly declared that he did not care for surprises because “the pleasure is never enhanced, and the inconvenience is considerable,” then read on, because I am going to reveal significant plot details. Everyone else should cease and desist from reading at this point.
There are two “problems” in Life of Pi. The first problem is that the young protagonist, Piscine (“Pi”) is drawn in a youthful, exaggerated way to religion in general. He embraces elements of traditional Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam. This is not the problem that you might initially think–namely, that these religions advance logically opposed claims. No, as far as religions go they all seem to be on the same “side” in this movie. Rather, the problem is that Pi’s father is a proponent of “science,” warning his sons early in the movie that “religion is darkness.” Although many of us are tired of this false dichotomy of “science vs. religion,” the movie nevertheless deserves praise for rendering the characters on each side of the issue as altogether admirable people, which goes a long way in making the issue seem less trite.
The second “problem” in the movie seems, at first, to be the one with which you may be familiar from the trailers: after the capsizing of the freighter carrying his family, Pi is left stranded on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger. Yet the actual “problem” is not this tiger situation, as fun and scary as it was for my two-year-old son, but rather a sudden plot twist at the end of the movie. Pi’s miraculous story of survival is rejected by two listeners, who then urge him to tell them “the truth.” Pi then relates a second, different version of what happened on the lifeboat, this time involving multiple human survivors, cannibalism, and murder.
Pi relates all of this in a flashback, and his interlocutor, an earnest young writer, then spells out the connection between the two stories. The first, miraculous story with the tiger turns out to be an allegory. The true story, it seems, is the second and more gruesome story. This is really the second problem of the movie, as Pi then asks the young writer: “I have told you two stories. Which do you prefer?” The writer responds without hesitation that he prefers the first, “better” story. And the movie then precedes to take this as the solution to the movie’s initial problem as well, as Pi then quietly declares, “And so it goes with god.” In the context of this movie, the meaning of that statement would seem to be that science may tell us what is true, but we may prefer religious explanations of the same things because they are better stories. In other words, as humans we should choose beauty over truth.
Now there are many things that one might criticize in this, such as the sophomoric ideas that some amorphous, magisterial “science” can tells us what is true or that religions are indifferent to the actual truth of their “stories.” However, I actually don’t want to criticize the movie. I think Life of Pi does us a service in highlighting a real human tendency–or rather, a human temptation–which is the attempt to separate the true from the beautiful. We like to think we can have one without the other. This is why we speak of “white lies,” expressions which lack truth but compensate by being more beautiful, in the sense of being less “harsh.” Or as we age, some of opt to have “a little work done.” This too, is an attempt to choose beauty at the expense of truth.
I would suggest, however, that we ought to consider resisting this separation, even if our surrounding culture accepts it as unproblematic. It is correct that we can intellectually distinguish beauty from truth; they are two separate words. But they aren’t fully separate realities. One way to see this is to notice that the truth has its own beauty. Let’s call it “long-term” beauty, as opposed to “short-term” beauty. A white lie may be more beautiful or attractive in the short-term. It can preserve a friendship in a moment of stress. But those cold, hard truths that seem so ugly and infuriating in the short term can take on a beauty over time, once the other person realizes that you respected him enough to give him the truth. Your friendship can end up strengthened by such truths: your friend realizes that you were the only one brave enough to tell him that he needed to quit drinking, that his fiancé was evil, etc. Over time, the beauty of truth blossoms, while the specious beauty of falsehood withers. The same logic applies to plastic surgery or other cosmetic procedures. In the short-run, having Botox injected would seem to make you more beautiful. But give it a decade, and you will lack the dignified beauty that can come with age. Instead, you will just look strange.
No, it seems that beauty and truth belong together, and it is part of our difficult human task to keep them together. In this sense, Life of Pi is a misguided movie. But I wish there were more movies misguided in such a thought-provoking way.