Film Review: Pi offers visual beauty—and theological confusion

By Ben Witherington III, Special Contributor…

Life of Pi
Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril

Films involving India and Indians have been all the rage of late, since at least Slumdog Millionaire. In the Oscar-nominated Life of Pi, we have another such film, which has a profoundly religious subtext and subtexture.

Pi Patel (short for Piscine—a boy named after a French swimming pool) grows up in a zoo and botanical garden in India. Pi is bright and deeply religious, and he samples different religions like a football player at a steak buffet table. He likes them all, even says Krishna introduced him to Christ, and calls himself a Hindu Catholic. Polytheists, of course, have no problem adding another deity to their collection, and Pi goes so far as to say that the Hindu gods were like super-heroes to him.

Life of Pi, nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, is full of visual spectacle but weighed down by a poorly developed approach to religion, says the Rev. Ben Witherington. TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX PHOTO

This movie, however, is more about the interconnectivity of all life, and more specifically it is a story about a boy and his Bengal tiger (oddly named “Richard Parker”), stuck on a small row boat in the Pacific for weeks and weeks.

But this is not a Narnia tale about Aslan. This is a very different sort of king of the beasts story.

Not surprisingly, Pi keeps probing the meaning of all the suffering that he sees some god as putting him through. And make no mistake there is suffering. At age 16, Pi loses his whole family in a horrible storm at sea which sinks the freighter that he, his family and a Noah’s ark worth of animals are on. The Patels were trying to move to Canada, in order to start a new life. The only survivors are Pi and Richard Parker.

There are some things to commend about this movie, based on the best-selling book by Yann Martel. First there is the spectacular cinematography which in and of itself is well worth the price of admission. There are scenes and segments of stunning beauty. Secondly, the story of survival at sea against all odds is indeed a story worth telling of human courage, and Pi insists that the only reason he does survive is due to the challenge of living with his fierce friend Richard Parker.

However, there are also problems with the story. First, the lost-at-sea part of the story takes up most of the film, and takes too long to tell. The movie is two hours and seven minutes, and for close to an hour and a half of it we are out to sea and wondering where this is all going.

The second and more profound problem with the film is the all too familiar attempt to blend all religions together in a sort of mental cuisinart, ignoring the importance—indeed the vitality—of the differences between those religions. The religious element in the film ends up more like “chicken soup for the soul” rather than profound discussions about the meaning of life and of God’s role in it.

Third, there is the problem of the notion, not unusual in eastern religions, of the sacredness of all life—taken to the degree that some of the main characters in the film are vegetarians. The problem with this is that if you believe in the sacredness of all life, then why not include plants as well? Why not fruits and vegetables, too? This whole animistic form of religion, of course, denies that humans are uniquely created in the image of God, and that other creatures were in part created for our use, including for food. Indeed, all life is valuable, but it is not all sacred. There is, for example, nothing sacred about flesh-eating bacteria.

I found the storytelling in Life of Pi excellent at times, and full of pathos, but I also found its presentation of the divine-human encounter to be confused (and confusing) at best.

While Pi is right at the end, when he says it is right to believe in God because that makes a better story out of life, he does not pause to tell us why that is so. We are tantalized but not helped by the spiritual dimensions in this film.

Still, it is worth seeing, especially for its visual strengths, and I give it a rating of 3.14. Which is to say, I give it a rating of pi.

Dr. Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. This review first appeared on Patheos.com. Reprinted with permission.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
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