MOVIES: 'The Life of Pi' has Christian symbolism
By Phil Boatwright
Dec 5, 2012


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Phil Boatwright
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) -- It's been a fairly satisfying month for your intrepid film reporter as the movies (and the theater) produced several offerings that not only entertain, but also feature spiritual insights. Along with a transfixing cinema version of "Les Miserables" (it gets its own column later this month), I was moved by the realization that thoughts of God were still a part of the consciousness of some storytellers.

'The Life of Pi'

"The Life of Pi" is a probable contender as Best Picture come Oscar time and is also the most visually stunning film of the year. Like Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," The Life of Pi bedazzles with CGI visuals that add to and support the film's viscerally emotional impact. As with Mr. Malick, filmmaker Ang Lee is unafraid to bring the subjects of God, faith and the seeking of spiritual fulfillment to the cineplex.

The film concerns a 16-year-old Indian boy whose passage to a new life in Canada aboard a freighter ends in a shipwreck. He is left to fend for himself on a life raft with only one other passenger -- a Bengal tiger.

This vibrant and esoteric work of art doesn't promote one religion over another. It does, however, what so few films do: It suggests that we become aware of spiritual matters and rely on our faith when the conundrums of the day overwhelm.

Days before I left for a press junket in New York, I had the opportunity to interview Oscar-winner David Magee, the screenwriter of "The Life of Pi."

BOATWRIGHT: "I know the film wasn't intended to proselytize, but as a follower of Christ I found it full of Christian symbolism."

MAGEE: "Good. We were hoping it would speak to people of faith. But this is also a film about storytelling. It's about the way we deal with the chaos in our lives. And the meaning behind the journey. It can be seen as having different lessons for different people.

"Ang [Lee] and I are storytellers at heart. We love the different journeys that people go on and to be able to express the lessons they learned on those journeys.

"For instance, if you want to see the tiger as something more than just a tiger, I think you can. You know, Pi is an innocent. He's grown up in a protected world and now he faces reality not just from without, but from within. I think you can see elements of Pi in the tiger, elements Pi is unaware of so far."

BOATWRIGHT: "What were you hoping viewers would take away from the film?"

MAGEE: "I look at it as a sort of Rorschach test. After going through this journey with Pi I think people will have different interpretations. What actually happened to Pi on that sea adventure? How much of it was true and how much of it was Pi's mind playing tricks on him? I hope by the end of the movie, they've enjoyed a beautiful, entertaining story and on their way home, they find themselves talking about how they see the movie."

Okay, I was hoping Mr. Magee would profess a devotion to Christ and a desire to point moviegoers to the path, not just a path. But I was pleased that his work and the film adaptation resonated with spiritual and life-altering subjects. As for the all-roads-lead-to-salvation theory, I will quote Jesus in John 14:6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Didn't mean to turn this into a sermon, but see what the film did for me? Whatever the filmmaker's intent, the film causes reflection. I get excited about a film like "The Life of Pi" because it is different and it does cause one to ponder that which will last.

"Scandalous"

A number of years ago Kathie Lee Gifford (then Epstein) and I attended Oral Roberts University, did a play together and became friends. Indeed, it was Kathie Lee who, a few years later, introduced me to the producer of "Days of Our Lives," which led to a 25-year association with the TV-biz union AFTRA. (That's also another column.) Skip ahead 30 years: I interviewed Mrs. Gifford via the phone. Days later during my trip to NYC for the "Les Miserables" press junket, I had the opportunity to see a Broadway production of her play "Scandalous."

Two-time Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello ("Parade," "Mamma Mia!") stars, with the book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford (music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman) about evangelist and founder of the Four-Square Church, Aimee Semple McPherson. Before women had the vote, Aimee Semple McPherson became the most celebrated and controversial woman of her generation. But the play is not about promoting the Four Square denomination or the Pentecostal movement. I assure you the production is not about proselytizing, but rather a sincere look at someone seeking God's forgiveness, His guidance and His pleasure.

BOATWRIGHT: "Do you think the production met with some hostile reviews because of the religious aspects in the show?"

GIFFORD: "Here's what I know. Not what I believe. What I know from being in this business for about 45 years. Our media and our culture tend to believe that if you have a faith in Christ, you're either a fool or a phony. You rarely see a person of faith portrayed fairly.

"Someone asked me why I would want to do a play about Aimee Semple McPherson. And I said 'Why wouldn't I?' 'Because she was a hypocrite,' he responded. 'Well, we've all been hypocrites at times. Right away you're coming at it from a prejudiced view.'"

BOATWRIGHT: "What were you hoping theater-goers would take away from the play?"

GIFFORD: "Number one, that God loves them. I'm not a religious person. I'm a faith-filled person, but I'm really uncomfortable around religious people. And by religious people, I mean people governed by the law, not God's grace. Jesus had trouble with the Pharisees because they were consumed by rules, not love or compassion. I'd rather have dinner with sinners and share my faith and God's love with them."

The Bible

It was a whirlwind three days in New York. Along with attending "Scandalous" and seeing a press screening of "Les Miserables," I also met the producers of "The Bible," a 10-episode special that will appear on the History Channel in March. Roma Downey (star of "Touched by an Angel") and her husband, Mark Burnett (producer of "Survivor" and many other shows), were enthusiastic, nearly giddy about their new production.

"Just think about all the people who don't know the Bible," Ms. Downey said. "We pray they will become interested in God's Word and that believers will be reminded to make Bible study a part of their daily lives."

Indeed, the well-made biblical vignettes will surely be of interest not just to viewers of the History Channel, but to all the other outlets this series will no doubt encompass. But, again, that's another column for another day.
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Phil Boatwright is celebrating 25 years of writing about Hollywood from a Christian perspective. In addition to writing for Baptist Press, he reviews films for http://www.previewonline.org/. He is also a regular contributor to "The World and Everything In it," a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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