This post contains spoilers for "Life of Pi."
The ending of "Life of Pi" hinges on a single question: which story do you prefer? It's a question posed as much from one character to another as it is from the movie to the audience. Ang Lee's Oscar-winning 2012 adaptation of the Yann Martel novel, "Life of Pi," raises the storytelling stakes about as high as they can go, as the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), tells a tale of survival at sea that is said to be so powerful it will make the listener/viewer believe in God.
That's what the Writer (Rafe Spall) has heard, anyway. It's a tall order to fill, and Pi responds accordingly, with a tall tale that involves his younger self surviving a wrecked freighter on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker and other zoo animals. As the Writer extracts this tale from Pi in the movie's frame story at the beginning, Pi has a humbler attitude about its theological implications. "As for God," he says. "I can only tell you my story. You will decide for yourself what you believe."
This comes back into play at the end of "Life of Pi" when the teen Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) tells a second version of the story we've been seeing in flashbacks the whole movie. By showing us the first version of the story in vivid detail onscreen, and having Pi simply summarize the second version in hospital bed dialogue, Lee lends more empirical and emotional truth to the first version, even though the second one seems more realistic in hindsight.
This is the whole point of "Life of Pi." It's a spiritual parable where what's important is not the external details of what happened, but rather the internal moral of the story.
'An Irrational Number Of Infinite Length'
If, as film critic Roger Ebert once said, "Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts," then "Life of Pi" is one that lets the viewer, at the end, synthesize what they've seen and felt with what they know about the way the real world works offscreen. In a way, the ending is all-inclusive; it allows two or more things to be true at once, not unlike Pi's own spirituality.
From an early age, we see how Pi had a keen interest in religion. Growing up, he tells us, the gods were his superheroes. Born in a zoo, named after the French word for swimming pool (piscine, which his classmates make fun of, since it sounds like "pissing"), Pi describes himself as a Catholic Hindu who was first introduced to God through Krishna. Then, after drinking some holy water on a dare, he comes to know the figure of Jesus Christ through his interrogations of a priest in the mountains of India. Soon, young Pi (Santosh Patel) is heeding the Muslim call to prayer, too.
Faith, as Pi sees it, is "a house with many rooms." His nickname recalls the mathematical pi, "an irrational number of infinite length," much of which he's memorized. Basically, Pi believes in everything. However, his father — a pragmatic zookeeper, who plays the voice of scientific reason — tells him that's the same as not believing in anything at all.
Whereas Pi is open-minded, trusting, and naïve enough as a kid to stick his hand through the bars of a tiger's cage and offer Richard Parker raw meat, Pi's father sees the supreme danger of such blind faith. "When you look into [the tiger's] eyes," he warns Pi, "you're seeing your own emotions reflected back at you."
The Zebra, Hyena, And Orangutan
Fortunately, as a trained swimmer, Pi has acquired at least one practical skill enabling him to survive as his family's ship sinks in a storm en route to Canada. Tethering him to a lifeboat gives "Life of Pi" a built-in metaphor to work with as the movie's allegory of faith through hardship unfolds.
Initially, Pi shares the boat with four animals: a wounded zebra, a hungry hyena, a maternal orangutan, and the hidden tiger, Richard Parker. At the end, however, when Pi sits in the hospital, relating his extraordinary survival tale to Japanese investigators of the shipwreck, they're incredulous of details like this. By now, Pi's story has taken on too many other elements of the fantastic, such as a carnivorous island full of meerkats (which offers plenty of vegetation to eat, but threatens to swallow humans and their teeth whole if they settle into a life of complacency there).
In the present, even the Writer admits Pi's story is "hard to believe." Faced with this, Pi now offers the second version of his story, with people substituted for animals (again, through dialogue only). The zebra, in this version, was actually the "happy Buddhist" sailor Pi and his family encountered in the mess hall on the freighter. The hyena, meanwhile, was the "disgusting" cook, played by Gérard Depardieu, who refused to serve them a vegetarian meal. Pi's own mother was the orangutan; she survived the sinking of the freighter while Pi's father and brother drowned.
In this version, rather than the hyena eating the zebra and killing the orangutan, it's the cook who cannibalizes the sailor before killing Pi's mother. Pi himself then unleashes his inner "tiger" and kills the cook. Here, Richard Parker symbolizes the evil in Pi, which the cook brought out.
Eye Of The Tiger
"Life of Pi" has one of those movie endings that pulls the rug out from under you, getting the audience to reconsider everything it's just seen. As all of Pi's exaggerations and embellishments fall away, the viewer's mental picture changes, and they're left with the likelihood that what really happened in his life was a much darker man-versus-nature tale.
The terror of the shipwreck scene, in which Pi's vulnerable, floating silhouette is framed alone in the ocean against the light of the sinking freighter, is the closest the movie comes to showing that kind of story. In it, Pi's life is suddenly overwhelmed by hostile weather, and he suffers the tragedy of losing his family before he's set adrift on the open sea. As if that weren't enough, he then witnesses the worst that humanity has to offer as the cook resorts to cannibalism and murders Pi's last loved one right before him offscreen. Worse yet, Pi participates in the evil by killing the cook in a revenge rage before he's left truly alone on the lifeboat.
We've seen and heard plenty of bleak tales like that before, and so has Pi. He's a survivor, however, and in his inner life, he says, "I wasn't alone out there. Richard Parker was with me."
For Pi, God is a tiger, an animal of dangerous beauty with whom he forms a tense truce on the lifeboat. At times, he speaks of the tiger in almost worshipful terms, saying, "Without Richard Parker, I would have died by now. My fear of him keeps me alert. Tending to his needs gives my life purpose." When he thinks of it, he also says, "I have to believe there was more in his eyes than my own reflection staring back at me."
'So It Goes With God'
Rather than let his harrowing ordeal break his spirit, Pi chooses to apply the power of positivity to a situation of adversity, filtering out some of the negative stuff and re-writing it (through movie magic) as a hyper-reality where anything can and does happen. Painterly visual effects and cinematography help him spin a believable message in a bottle where he's "on a lifeboat alone, with a tiger."
Everyone has their own concept of God, including Pi's girlfriend at the beginning of the movie, who has a different interpretation than him of the tiger's body language in the zoo. Even someone who's not inclined to believe in a higher power like Pi might have their own reciprocal concept of no God.
For his part, Pi recognizes the possibility that the God he called on for strength is just an aspect of his psyche, but he resists the cynicism that would reduce the lived experience of faith to a convenient crutch in times of trouble. In the end, both the investigators and the Writer come to agree with Pi that the better story is the life-affirming one with the tiger.
"So it goes with God." Like "The Grey," another 2012 survival film with a spiritual bent, "Life of Pi" starts a meaningful conversation with the viewer about the nature of human existence. At the heart of it are questions of faith and the unknown and whether the universe holds infinite possibilities, like the number pi, or whether there are no divine secrets, and everything is readily knowable and quantifiable. Are we each suffering alone in our own little lifeboat, or does another presence with metaphorical tiger stripes accompany us? If truth really is stranger than fiction, maybe it shouldn't be discounted as fiction just because it's strange.
Read this next: The 15 Best Jackie Chan Movies Ranked
The post Life of Pi Ending Explained: Which Is the Better Story? appeared first on /Film.