Art Review

“Religion” Hollywood-Style: The Life of (O)Pi(um)

The Motion Picture Association of America states that a PG-rated movie contains no “drug use” and thus only merits the “suggestion” of “parental guidance,” while an R-rated movie may contain “drug abuse” and is only appropriate for “adults.” By that rule, it’s hard to tell whether The Life of Pi should have been rated “PG” or “R.” 

Since Pi doesn’t even mention illicit drugs, why would I possibly question Pi’s child-friendly rating?

Karl Marx famously stated that “religion is the opium of the people.”  For Marx, “religion” was really a form of “false consciousness,” a sort of drug that irresponsible people take to help them feel better about the ugliness of reality by escaping it through made-up, therapeutic stories. As such, Marx rejected religion, because he thought that it tranquilizes ordinary people against shaking off the “chains” that imprison them, since they’d prefer to stay doped up on religion rather than struggling for justice.

It seems to me that this is precisely what the visually stunning, almost unbelievably realistic-but-rigged Pi is prescribing for us. As we sail with the boy Pi on his journey, we find out that life in the world is often beastly and unbearable. And so we prefer to tell a better story about what’s happening to us, to re-describe the facts such that we can survive till we die and it’s over. And this is precisely what we’re told “religion” is: our “preference” for a “better story.”

In fact, Pi himself has mixed together elements of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam like a religious buffet to make his personal story better and better. And, of course, Pi tells his story as compellingly as he possibly can with only subtle clues that it’s fictionalized (e.g., floating bananas), since if the story didn’t “capture” the teller/listener, well,  (1) they’d simply be left with their suffering,  (2) the drug would have failed, and (3) they’d abandon it and maybe life itself if their condition were really bad (Pi’s family was killed in a shipwreck and his mother eaten by sharks.) Here it’s worth noting that the nigh miraculously real looking Bengal tiger “Richard Parker” is just a computer-generated illusion, the most telling symbol of the entire film – and a slight to the Abrahamic religions that claim to be grappling with a God who speaks and acts in space-time reality, not a human technological trick.

At the end of the movie, Pi says that we should judge our stories about reality by how “good” they are. Moments later, Pi’s wife and kids come home, and thus we find out that his story has a “happy ending.” And thus having inhabited Pi’s fiercely beautiful (made-up) version of his unbearably brutal (real-life) story – what Plato called a “noble lie” or pharmakon (drug) – dear Hollywood makes sure that we “feel good” when we leave the cinema.

Let us judge Pi by its own standard: in light of our world’s terrible ills – from extreme poverty to government brutality to morally bankrupt wealth – is Pi’s story good enough to be worth believing: that “meaning,” “truth” – “God” – is something that we largely make up to help ourselves feel better about our suffering and survive a little longer on this carnivorous island we call the world? What about those who didn’t survive, whose stories won’t end happily? Is this “religious” drug remotely “good” for them, or a dope that we want to smoke as our neighbors languish in suffering and injustice?

When it comes to Pi’s brand of “religion,” I’m with Marx – and I wonder if Pi shouldn’t have been rated “R” for “drug abuse.”

You decide.


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