As the sun sets and the mystery of darkness takes its place, I wonder about the places I have never been to. I wonder about this world, its waters and its skies and its beings. I wonder at what we call the miracle of life, and I wonder where that miracle resides. Does it have a home? Does it have a name? Does it fly or swim? does it have roots or wings? Where does it live, where on this revolving blue marble where you and I reside? Are we a part of it? Tonight, these wonderings are woven together by a soundscape: Mychael Danna and Ron Simonsen’s soundtrack for the 2012 film Life of Pi.
Based on a novel by the Canadian author Yann Martel, Life of Pi is the story of a young man whose life takes a turn for a mystical when he finds himself the sole survivor of a shipwreck in the deepest spot on Earth– the Mariana Trench. Stuck in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with no signs of humanity even remotely in sight, Pi struggles to stay alive, all alone. Well, strictly speaking, he is not completely alone. Pi does have one companion, who remains with him throughout the story. His name is Richard Parker, and he is an exceptionally fierce and dangerous Bengal tiger.
At the start of the film, we learn that Pi is from Pondicherry, a city on the southeast coast of India. Pondicherry has, for thousands of years, been a zone for trade and exchange. Like many places in India, Pondicherry has been defined by the coexistence of many religions, cosmologies, and traditions. The diversity of the city’s heritage(s) combine with a distinctively tropical landscape, and the result is the sort of place that could spiritually prepare Pi for his unforeseeable, unimaginable life experience.
Pi grows up a Hindu with an intense interest in Christianity and Islam. Surrounded by animals (his family owned a zoo), as a child Pi is interested in communication in all its forms– including, and perhaps especially, the bonds we form with animals. He is enchanted by mythology, stories of the skies and the unknown. He comes of age with a distinctly Indian sense of humor, empathy and philosophy, and is perhaps open to the cosmos well before his story truly begins. He believes that the divine exists in numerous forms, and that we would be wise to awaken ourselves to that possibility.
Life of Pi is a tale that can be interpreted in several ways. For some, the story can be seen as one great metaphor for human interaction, for the relationships we break and forge within the confines of society. In this interpretation, the tiger represents the aggressive among us, while Pi represents the opposite.
To others, the story is to be taken literally– an inspiring tale of a young man who is able to survive the many faces of nature, and thus learns key lessons about survival at multiple levels.
To me, Life of Pi is an extraordinary allegory that has to be seen, experienced, to be believed. As I listen to the film’s soundtrack, I am reminded of the almost unendurably incredible way in which this film portrays the planet we live upon.
In his journeys through the sea, Pi encounters nature in her diverse incarnations. He experiences her beauty in the form of tremendous constellations of animals underwater, and stars up above. He finds himself in the middle of storms that rival the strongest hurricanes in their intensity. From still waters to unusual plants to scorching sunlight, from fear to hope to the border of insanity and the shoreline of miracles, Pi experiences the Earth in ways that virtually none of us will first-hand. Would we want to, though? Would we want to be on the edge of oblivion for hundreds of days, keeping company only with a perennially hungry and thirsty tiger? Perhaps not.
And yet, in Pi’s story, we learn something about life that perhaps is too deep for words. Perhaps it is too deep for music as well.
Yet the soundtrack of Life of Pi helps me to recall the richly textured, if inarticulable, insight that the story conveys. For all of the ups and downs, the crests and falls of Pi’s life with Richard Parker, the film’s score sounds like a sequence of rhythmic, steadying breaths. A bansuri (a flute used in Indian classical and devotional music), choral vocals, strings from East and West, and a variety of other instruments help us to recall the beauty, mystery and profound contemplation that infuses this film– and crucially, our own personal responses to it. This movie, and its soundtrack, help me to remember the the inexhaustible and unfathomable beauty of our planet. They help access that part of me that believes in that beauty, and believes that we are a part of it in a real, cosmic way that, I fiercely hope, cannot be torn asunder.