This essay will explore and expand on the numerous foundations that creates Film Form’s four meanings in relation to Angela Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’ (2012), a drama and action film centred around spirituality and the undying human spirit. These various elements suggest or say things in larger significant manners that filmmakers have conveyed in the ideas and opinions in the film, implicitly or explicitly. The filmmakers want the spectators to grasp these referential, explicit and implicit and meanings, and in some films, for the audience to create their own meanings.
The plot is termed the referential meaning. “It’s merely a synopsis that anyone else who watches the film will likely agree with. It is essentially describing the plot of the film, telling what happens, is the simplest way to best explain it to someone else” (Jacobs, C.P. 2017). The eleventh edition of Film Art further adds that “this is very concrete, close to a bare-bones plot summary” (Bordwell, Thompson & Smith 2017). “Here the meaning depends on the spectator’s ability to identify specific items” (Bordwell et al. 2017). The film references places or thing that already exist in the real world that have some significance. Thus, to some extent it requires the viewer to be acquainted with some meanings and settings cued by the movie. During the State of Emergency period in 1975 till early 1977 as declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in “Life of Pi, Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel’s father, Santosh Patel, a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India, grows nervous about the current political situation that is characterised by suspended constitutional rights and restricted civil liberties” (Spark Notes 2017). He speculates that Gandhi might try to take over his zoo and faced with depressing economic conditions, Pi’s father decides he will sell off his zoo animals in North America upon arrival and move his family of four (himself, his younger son Pi, eldest son Ravi and wife Mrs Gita Patel) to Canada by means of a Japanese freighter. The sink ships after a terrible storm and Pi is the only human survivor in one version of the story, and/or Pi and his mother, the cook and a Taiwanese sailor the survivors in the alternative version. However, Pi is not alone in the main version; a fearsome Bengal tiger is also aboard the lifeboat. As time passes in the 227 days long ordeal, Pi is forced to trust the tiger, an internal and external conflict with self. Understanding the turmoil in India at the time, one can see the justification to up and leave a country across seas to another continent entirely. It functions to illustrate the context of the Patel family in the new India. It is effective as it sets the narrative in a larger narrative already invested with significance in the real world – history.
The meaning that is seemingly being tried to be made, or got across, that is still considerably tangible in attribution to the film. An explicit meaning is the “moral of the story” or socio-political message that channelled through actions performed by actors and words spoken by characters in the movie under the instruction of the creator of the film(Bordwell et al. 2017). This meaning is also controlled by context, within the scope of the film form. The explicit meaning, the core message herein is that even in dire situations, in acts of survival, we as humans should never abandon our humanity – our compassionate and caring nature to resort to be inhuman(e). The survival of the soul is as important as survival of the physical. This is clearly illustrated in Pi’s interaction with the tiger. He could have killed Richard Parker with an axe, or simply left Richard Parker out of the boat to drown so that his own safety is guaranteed and not consistently threatened by the beast. This is because Pi is a person of faith and great hope. His utterance in the movie that animals have souls too, which is the reason he is a vegetarian, is why he feels the need to feed the tiger, give it water to sustain it and not leave it behind on that Island that turns acidic at night. The human spirit and being civilised has not left Pi, even when he is removed from civilisation/society. This is effectively done, and consistently reinforced in the film in how Pi speaks of the animals, giving them human quality, for example when he takes his girlfriend to the zoo to see the tiger and he says Richard Parker is showing off when he turns his head like a dancer. Even by the very act of continuing to call it Richard Parker and not ‘Thirsty’. The selfishness, primal and primitiveness, greedy and violence of the hyena represents such inhumanity, a personality trait that is in humans innately, more so evident in survival situations. The fear and desperation embodied by the tiger and how it uses aggression to compensate for these emotions is telling of an emotionally immature people that might be physically mature. Perhaps, this is the case of a naïve Pi who is forced into manhood prematurely. The injured Zebra that is finished off and used as bait is telling of a society that treat the ill, the other-abled, the poor, the old and other marginalised groups of people as second-class citizens and are objectified and only seen in ways to exploit them for personal gain and development. Indeed, it is still a case of ‘survival of the fittest, elimination of the weak’ in modern day society. Perhaps, the reason humans are represented as animals is a friendly reminder how animalistic human can be. How we are animals too. At a basic level, we are capable of far worse than the beasts we fear and cage. The love and affection of the orangutan is as inherent in humans as is the evil nature of the tiger-esque, and it is up to the individual to choose which path to follow. This is foreshadowed by Pi’s father when he says Pi must choose a path if he is to find his way on this journey called life. Although he was talking about Pi’s multi-religiousness, it holds true for most motifs.
The abstract meaning that is implicit meaning is another level of interpretation, slightly deeper than the less-intricate referential and explicit meanings (Bordwell et al. 2017). It is a “less obvious meaning but can still be inferred by seeing how the characters change, grow, and develop throughout the course of the film” (Jacobs, C.P. 2017). Issues and ideas dealing with general human relations are mostly implicitly made. This is a comment on a broader issue or issues in society. Although some of these subtexts are intended by filmmakers, most try to avoid them altogether. Implicit meanings deal with themes. The theme of belief versus atheism is a major theme throughout the movie. Fact versus fiction. Science versus religion. Pi is the grey area between the scientific-point-of-departure of his father, and the religious moral standpoint of his maternal side, he embodies that point that assumes both fields have their uses and can co-exist, and are necessarily mutually exclusive. And like his namesake, it is irrational to argue why one is superior to the other when Science answers how when Religion answers why. Both answers are needed by humans to fully understand the world and the role of human’s in the world and have wholesome humanity. Pi articulates faith as a house with many rooms, with doubt on each floor. Perhaps Science has a room too, as a zoologist by trade in his younger years. It is in fact religion that saves his humanity whilst at sea and science that saves his life, aquatic science of swimming, fishing and so forth.
Symptomatic meaning is an interpretation that looks at the whole film as a part of the wider scope of society, reflecting and illustrating themes prevalent in the culture, in the time and place it was made, and possibly in the creator’s personal life experience (Bordwell et al. 2017). This level of interpretation tries to recognize symbolic content, identifying characters and situations as metaphors for something else, or possibly seeing the entire story as an allegory about something else (Jacobs, C.P. 2017). Film Art furthermore adds that it reveals social ideologies and set values. “It situates the film in a current trend of thought that is assumed by [that particular] society” (Bordwell et al. 2017) during a set time. Pi believes in Hinduism, then finds Christianity and later Islam completes his holy Tricia. He does not see any contradiction here, contrary to what conventional and mainstream opinion is on the issue. Pi’s higher plane of thinking is on the basis that all three religious faiths have much more in common than they are different. All three believe in a higher power, or supreme being, or a creator, which also corresponds with his unofficial-official third system of belief- science, namely the Big Bang theory that theorises that from nothing came something. Which is essentially what a miracle is – a religious phenomenon. This is a direct assault on fundamentalism that is inherent in all religions, and the violent consequence thereof. Also suggesting that Christianity, the moral code used to justify colonialism, slavery and crusades (‘holy wars’) has no moral superiority to accuse other religions of violence. It seeks to tell us that no religion promotes violence. It is up to the individual that practises it. A direct assault to racial profiling and such. Pi has renewed hope in humanity from his faiths. Not the places of worships: church, mosque, temple, science lab – no, none of that nor the scriptures, as we see his scientific instruction on how to survive is hurled away from him by the wind – a natural element that is in the power of the Creator. Pi begins to understand how insignificant he is, and by extension humans in the greater scheme of nature and that we are from nature, the soil, and to the soil we will return. This is what the algae island that turns carnivorous by night represents about nature’s power, it can give and take – we are its mercy. It is social commentary on how humans feel entitled to exploit everything in nature for our own end and use, from food, to shelter provided by natural resources to fossil fuels. The vegetarian boy Piscine Molitor Patel has given way to survivor-contestant Pi who feeds on flesh now, even human flesh to survive. The island’s fundamental need to survive, like humans, is satisfied temporarily and unendingly through the greedy consumption of other living things. Daytime has always been associated with good, ‘godly’ things whilst night-time’s dark has been with literal darkness, or evil which is what is typical of man too. The island represents what society uses religion for: as a sense of security that all things are safe and benign if one is religious, when that is not true as dreadful things will happen to a believer too. It is the joy of reaching a plateau for temporary rest and forgetting that the summit of the mountain has not been conquered, metaphorically speaking. Pi takes a leap of faith, to challenge the great unknown of the sea again in search of humanity than this island that cannot be determined of its origin, function or its purpose. On a balance of chance, the sea is lesser risk – a scientific conclusion to some parts from Pi the zoologist. Pi’s greatest triumph is maintaining his humanity, even in the act of survival.
Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., & Smith, J. (2017) Film Art. 11th ed. New York, McGraw-Hill Education.
Jacobs, C.P., 2017. Film Theory and Approaches to Criticism, or, What did that movie mean? [Online]. Available from: http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/FilmTheory&Analysis.htm [Accessed 08th September 2017]