How Life of Pi and Flight venture beyond Hollywood’s typical treatment of faith.
For all the religious fervour he displays in Life of Pi, our mathematically monikered hero hardly grows up in a faith-positive household. “Religion is darkness,” Pi’s non-believing father tells the Indian lad, albeit to no avail—early scenes in Ang Lee’s beautifully realized adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel reveal how Pi simultaneously becomes a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. Though some may quibble with the youngster’s inclusive approach to faith, it can’t hurt to have three of the world’s favourite belief systems at your disposal should you end up stuck in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
Like Martel’s book, Lee’s film invites audiences to ponder the unknowable ways of unseen deities and their plans for us (or lack thereof). Though mainstream movies are generally reluctant to weigh in on metaphysical matters, Life of Pi isn’t the only big new film to tackle the thorny topic of divine providence. And while Denzel Washington’s booze-soaked, coke-sniffing pilot protagonist in Flight may not bear much resemblance to Pi, he, too, is compelled to seek a higher meaning in events that seem both tragic and miraculous when he manages to land a commercial airliner under ridiculously difficult circumstances.
Life of Pi and Flight stray from the cozier view of religion that Hollywood typically adopts when making a bid for believers’ dollars, earnestly exploring questions that are fundamental to any faith that attributes agency to powers beyond our understanding.
You can hardly blame filmmakers for being nervous about addressing religion at all, having seen how the culture wars fought over American morality in the ’80s and ’90s gave way to more global manifestations of religious conflicts in our age of terror. And yet the massive success of The Passion of the Christ in 2004 galvanized an audience that the film industry hadn’t realized existed. Until Mel Gibson’s box-office coup, Hollywood generally presumed that Christians would rather picket outside of a multiplex than pay to go inside. In the eight years since, there have been countless efforts to court that audience again with an array of faith-based entertainment. They range from low-budget movies by Christian production companies (most of which invariably star Kirk Cameron), to Tyler Perry’s feel-good morality tales for African-American churchgoers, to the Chronicles of Narnia franchise.
Many of these examples involve a miraculous event that inspires a family or a community to come together and bask in the loving glow of divine benevolence. However, miracles take on a different meaning in Life of Pi and Flight. While many aspects of Pi’s survival story may be providential, they’re also dwarfed by the immense pain and suffering that surrounds them. In effect, Pi’s adventure at sea is prompted and continually overshadowed by the catastrophe that claimed his family, a catastrophe that was presumably sanctioned by the same god (or gods) whose aid he seeks.
Meanwhile, the characters in Flight take many opportunities to mull over what constitutes an “act of God” in both the legal and literal interpretations of the phrase. The film also complicates our understanding of the m-word when the pilot’s union rep, played by Bruce Greenwood, tells Captain “Whip” Whitaker that “the way you landed that plane was nothing short of a miracle.” The lord may work in mysterious ways, but his vessels tend not to be commercial-airline pilots who show up to their jobs ripped on vodka and cocaine.
There’s an unmistakable element of survivor guilt in both of these characters’ stories, as each of them attempts to rationalize the circumstances that caused the deaths of loved ones while leaving them alive to stumble through the aftermath. Tellingly for two movies that delve so deeply into matters of faith, that conundrum drives them away from more conventional forms of salvation. For Pi, it’s an overriding belief in the power of storytelling to take the sting out of a cruel and chaotic universe. Seeking earthly solace, Whip is compelled to confront his alcoholism, which already functions like an angry, irrational god ruling over his existence.
None of this qualifies as traditional faith-based entertainment, which is why these movies’ appeal extends beyond parishioners, all the way to an avowed atheist like James Cameron (King Avatar has been especially vocal in his appreciation for Life of Pi). Yet in treating these questions with all due seriousness, they do better justice to the theological traditions of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine than most movies that espouse religious values. We may even get to see more like them if their creators are rewarded with big grosses and shiny statuettes—the only miracles that the church of Hollywood truly recognizes.