The long-standing convention in the movies is that the camera is a truthful, omniscient, unbiased observer. What we see on the screen is what really happens within the movie's canonical universe. Every once in a while, though, a movie challenges this idea, offering the audience the pleasaingly dissonant experience of realizing that the camera has been lying to us.
This is a fascinating idea space for a movie to explore, the unreliability of subjective narrative. The TV show The X-Files did this often, showing supernatural or alien phemonena which seem "real" to the camera's eye, until one notices that no character save Mulder is witness to them. Mystery-thrillers like To Die For and The Usual Suspects allow the camera to illustrate deceptive stories fabricated by characters as if those stories really happened within the movie's reality.
Ang Lee's Life of Pi takes the unreliable narrator idea a step further. Its unreliable narrative is not just a plot twist for thrilling, surprise-ending effect. Instead, the notion of unreliable narrative forms the central allegorical premise of the movie. Its narrator, Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi (Irrfan Khan), tells two versions of his terrible experiences following a shipwreck. When his listener (Rafe Spall) asks which story is true, Pi invites him to choose the truth that he finds more satisfying. "And so it is with God," Pi concludes, underscoring the message that religious narratives, too, provide a multiplicity of tellings of the same underlying tale, none more inherently correct than any other, even if they are mutually inconsistent. Life of Pi transforms unreliable narrative from a bug into a feature; it is not a reason to distrust conflicting worldviews, but rather a reason to embrace and even cherish them.
Pi himself, as a boy, was driven by the simultaneous experience of concurrent, conflicting narratives; he considered himself a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian all at once. But the story that the adult Pi tells is not just an allegory for reconciling religious dogma. It represents our experience of self, our power to choose our own interpretetations of the truths that swirl around us and within us. In one version of his tale, Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger. Nature takes its course, and before long only Pi and the tiger remain, staking out their respective spaces for survival. In the other, darker version of Pi's story, the zebra becomes a wounded Japanese sailor, the orangutan his mother, and the hyena a cruel, murderous ship's cook. The tiger, of course, is Pi himself, a wild, raw facet of Pi that both threatens him and keeps him alive as he drifts over the ocean. (It is perhaps the movie's only misstep that it makes this mapping between animals and humans explicit, and fails to give the audience the chance to draw our own allegorical conclusions.)
In the fanciful, allegorical truth in which Pi shares his lifeboat with an untamed tiger, Pi faces and acknowledges his animal demons, understands them, and even though he neither befriends nor assimilates them, is able to let them go once his ordeal is over. This is a very satisfying truth indeed, not just because the story is more fun and magical, but because of what it says about human strength, resilience, instict, and power. And while Pi invites the listener to choose between the two stories, Ang Lee stacks the deck in favor of this version. It is rendered in breathtaking and magical detail. The visuals are not merely realistic; they are super-realistic, extra-realistic, beyond realistic. The Pacific waters range from preternaturally glasslike calm to wild, towering, black waves. Luminscent sea creatures light Pi's lonely nights with wonder. Cheerful, chirping meerkats scoot and swarm across the brambles of a living island. The gruesome tale of the cook and Pi's mother, however, Lee does not illustrate at all. Instead, the camera focuses close on the exhausted, weathered face of the young Pi (Suraj Sharma) as he recites this version of events without affect. In the cold world of logic and reality, this version of the story is more plausible and more likely. But in Lee's movie-world, the magical version is the one that occurs in the camera's view, the one which is granted that conventional imprimatur of truth.Finally there is Irrfan Khan, the calm, steady heartbeat of the film even as the story and the viewer are tossed about on violent waves. He is superb actor and delivers a worthy performance. This is no mean feat given his character's extroardinary equanimity and the fact that most of his lines are delivered in voice over, so that Khan cannot even press his marvelous face into service of performance. The adult Pi, narrating his tale, does not reveal a tremendous range of emotion. And yet his presence is large; one has the sense of a man who has reached an enormous depth of insight and now takes genuine, warm pleasure in leading others to the same revelations. He has the beatific air of one who has reconciled the infinite contradictions of this world and its many gods. He, and Lee, invite us to join him in that peaceful place, as peaceful as Pi's boat floating in a silent sea of starlight. It is an irresistible invitation.