In the 2012 film Life of Pi, the viewer is taken on an unlikely journey across the ocean in a boat shared by a boy and a Bengal tiger. When the narrator—Pi as an adult—finishes the tale, he implies that a second account, a brutal struggle between humans for survival, may be the truth. He poses the question to the writer who is his audience, “Which story do you prefer?” (Life of Pi) The film exemplifies the medieval interpretive theory of polysemy, or multiple meanings, as described by Dante Alighieri in Il Convivio, not only because Pi literally offers viewers two possible versions of history—mythological and actual—but also because a deeper examination reveals a third allegorical reading that comments on the spirituality of man.
According to Dante, words can have many senses that fall under two basic categories of literal and allegorical. Allegory, he writes, is “a truth hidden behind a beautiful fiction” and includes symbolic, moral and spiritual interpretations (187). The main narrative of Life of Pi is portrayed in technically stunning, three-dimensional magic realism, a literary and artistic style with roots in mythology. Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker, have fantastic and harrowing experiences as a shipwrecked pair that eventually wash up on shore and go back to their human and animal lives. When Pi relates an alternative, believable story of how he killed the last man on the lifeboat to stay alive, it becomes clear that the fantastic journey may indeed be a “beautiful fiction.”
Is it Pi crying on the beach over the uncaring tiger, or God himself weeping at the indifference of man?
On the surface the film is about which story to believe—the literal or the allegorical, the ugly or the beautiful, the factual or the poetic. However, both versions of the tale inform an additional sense to Life of Pi, which Dante may have categorized as anagogical: Man may be a spiritual being—a higher being in medieval terms, closer to God—but he remains tied to the natural, animal world as long as he lives in the flesh.
Early in the film Pi is depicted as a young boy in search of God and love as he devotes himself to a number of religions and embarks on a romance with a beautiful dancer. He is also fascinated with the sublime but fierce Richard Parker. Pi’s love, his principles, and his faith are all challenged during his journey with the tiger, as he is forced to do things he never imagined to stay alive. Caring for Richard Parker is the only thing that sustains his soul as the two float seemingly endlessly at sea.
But the tiger ultimately never returns Pi’s love. Finally washing up on a Mexican beach, Richard Parker rises from the boat and walks into the jungle. Pi cries bitterly because the animal didn’t turn to look back or “say goodbye.” Love, it seems, has no home in nature, which is brutal and existential. However, in the second version of the story, it’s the so-called “higher beings,” the humans, that fight each other to the death. Is it Pi crying on the beach over the uncaring tiger, or God himself weeping at the indifference of man?
As Dante states in Il Convivio, “It is impossible to arrive at the other senses, especially the allegorical, without first arriving at the literal” (188). Having placed the viewer at the intersection of myth and reality, Life of Pi, takes it’s audience to another level of reflection. In Dante’s words, “ . . . that which is spiritually intended is no less true” (187). In the film, the writer responds to Pi’s question by preferring the story with the tiger because it’s “the better story.” Pi answers, “And so it goes with God” (Life of Pi).
Alighieri, Dante. Il Convivio. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 184-188.
—. The Letter to Can Grande. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 188-190.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 177-184.
Augustine. On Christian Teaching. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 154-162.
Life of Pi. Dir. Ang Lee. Perf. Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall and Gerard Depardieu. 20th Century Fox. 2012. Film.