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Life of Pi an Epic Journey of Spiritual Discovery

By Chris Carpenter Program Director - In a bit of an upset, Ang Lee edged past Steven Spielberg to win the Best Director award for Life of Pi at this year's Academy Awards. The film is based on a 2001 Yann Martel novel that was considered to be unfilmable by many of his peers due to the technical complexities involved. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Lee, Oscar nominated screenwriter David Magee, and lead actor Suraj Sharma to discuss the faith elements of the film.

NEW YORK -- We are all familiar with the navy blue bumper sticker emblazoned on the back of many vehicles these days trumpeting the desire to "co-exist". Featured is the Christian cross, a Muslim star and crescent, a Star of David, a yin-yang, even a peace symbol that was made so popular during the 1960s. Each symbol, representative of a different belief system, purports to have the answer to the meaning of life. Some would say these bumper stickers are sweet, even innocent for their lack of attack on other religions. They are the epitome of "getting along" so to speak. Yet others claim the stickers declare that the only way we can enjoy freedom and liberty, is to repress those who are different from us.

This is kind of the way I feel about the new motion picture, Life of Pi, that is set to release this week amid a great deal of Oscar-buzz. It is expertly made, contains story telling at its finest, and seems innocent enough. In fact, it is a fantastical journey of survival and faith in God as told through the eyes of a teenage boy. Sounds great, right? Well, for all its cinematic wonder, viewers are left to ponder which God does Pi answer to?

"We didn't want to make this a course in comparative religion," says Pi screenwriter David Magee. "Our intent was not to preach to people or to persuade people into a new point of view. In fact, I think the point is not to say that any of these belief systems is the right one. It's to say we all have stories that get us through our lives. But when you are faced with the ordeal like Pi's you are sent on a journey. You then have to call upon those stories and beliefs to help you get through."

Based on the bestselling Yann Martel book of the same name that has sold more than seven million copies, Pi is a young man from India, who like so many youth coming of age, is trying to figure out who he is and where he came from. The son of a zookeeper, Pi is exposed to four different religions in his formative years -- Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and atheism. Each one has an almost intoxicating appeal to the carefree youth. Even though he was raised a Hindu, Pi is also drawn to Christianity and Islam. His father is quick to point out that science and math can also solve most questions about life. Claiming he 'just wants to love God', Pi desperately tries to understand God through the lens of each religion.

"We wanted to make sure that the movie was not going to be an essay or a philosophical treatise but an enjoyable journey through a child's early years as he comes to fall in love with many different types of gods and religions," Magee explains. "He is exposed to atheism and all sorts of different stories before he goes off."

Despite Magee's best efforts to downplay the importance of any one faith in Life of Pi, Christianity does receive a very fair representation in the movie. Pi survives a horrific disaster at sea. Adrift on a small life boat with only his thoughts and four loathsome zoo animals, Pi learns a great deal about himself and what he believes in. It is with one of the animals, a ferocious Bengal tiger, that he forms an unexpected intrinsic connection.

"It's an adventure story," says eight-time Oscar winner Ang Lee, who directed Life of Pi. "It's a movie about faith and hope and that is very hard to keep a balance between the two. It is very, very challenging for a filmmaker. Of course there is a kid, there is a lot of water, and there is a tiger."

So much water, in fact, that it is practically a character in the movie. Pi spends 227 days at sea with only the tiger and a vast expanse of water as his companions. Fighting for survival becomes a harsh reality, one that forces him to re-evaluate every fiber of his being. Due to a sometimes contentious on-board relationship between man and beast, Pi is forced to spend a great deal of time soaking his spirits while semi-submerged in the murky depths. It is the water that serves as his refuge, a place to soak, to contemplate, but more importantly it becomes a place of personal cleansing.

"On the surface I think it is a movie about faith, an innocent young boy soaking in all of these organized religions in society," says Lee, who also directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "Then he is thrown into the ocean. So, in some ways, water is like the desert. It is a test of his faith, his strength, and everything he goes through on the journey. As a filmmaker, I like to see the water as something that carries life. I think it is a wonderful tool to visualize internal feelings. I like to use water to express my internal feelings of Pi's struggle."

In preparation for adapting the novel, Magee immersed himself in any book or story he could find that pitted man against the sea. He naturally gravitated toward stories like Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, and Noah's Ark, but surprisingly Magee drew inspiration from the Old Testament story of Job.

"I was looking for anything on the spiritual journey (of a man)," says Magee, who also adapted Finding Neverland for the big screen. "I really liked the story of Job from the Old Testament in relation to his trials and ordeals. I was especially drawn to the part where he said, "God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

As the movie nears its end, life is beginning to wither from Pi and the tiger in the battered life boat. Weak and emaciated, the pair seems to be near the end. After nearly eight months of bobbing and weaving over the high seas, both seemingly come to a deep understanding. They are about to die. Is this the ultimate moment of surrender to God for Pi? Not quite. Magee believes this moment comes much earlier in the movie.

"(Shortly after being shipwrecked) Pi says, "I surrender to you God but I want to know what comes.' He is surrendering on a very surface level but he is not surrendering his beliefs. He is not surrendering his belongings. He thinks he is letting go. (But being with) the tiger he has to make a deeper kind of surrender. He has to essentially be stripped of everything and find himself. I think the ultimate moment of surrender is just before he reaches an island, when he comes to terms with the tiger. He doesn't say 'I surrender' at that moment 'now again'. It is a quiet understanding."

Filled with thought provoking moments of self-discovery, redemption and God's unrequited grace, Life of Pi, is an exploration into whether a person truly believes what they say they believe. For Christians, that is whether Jesus Christ went to the Cross as the ultimate sacrifice for sinners to be saved by grace. Unfortunately, this quest is played out for the other four religions as well.

Life of Pi opens this week in theaters nationwide.

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