Thrilling ‘Pi’ Stars Tiger, Boy, Sea; Bleak ‘Amour’: Film

'Life of Pi'
Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel, seen here with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, in "Life of Pi." The two must rely on each other to survive an epic journey. Photographer: Rhythm & Hues/Twentieth Century Fox via Bloomberg

The credits unfurl against the odd gaits and funny muzzles of the beasts in an Indian zoo, photographed in miraculously tactile 3-D. By the time they’ve finished, you know that “Life of Pi” is going to take you someplace splendid.

From those opening moments, the director, Ang Lee, makes clear his intention: to amaze.

“Life of Pi,” which opened the 50th New York Film Festival on Friday, tells the story of a shipwrecked boy and a Bengal tiger alone on the ocean together.

Its “Robinson Crusoe” charm and excitement come from the boy’s resourcefulness in keeping himself and the tiger alive in their drifting boat, and in gaining the animal’s respect so that it won’t eat him.

Yann Martel, the Canadian author who wrote the 2001 novel the movie is based on, made the story a parable about faith and the ways we perceive the divine. His vision and Lee’s merge beautifully.

As a boy, Pi Patel is comically open to belief. By the time he boards the fatal freighter with his family, he has embraced Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam -- all together; he doesn’t see why he has to choose.

Overpowering Senses

The movie’s idea of these faiths is as bright and friendly and clean as the India of its opening scenes. But if it’s consciously childlike on the plane of ideas, on the level of the senses it’s overpowering.

A star-sprinkled sky above a sea phosphorescent with jellyfish brings to mind another night sky: the one that, in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” seemed to capture more stars than any camera ever had before.

And the story of a fatherless boy who gives his heart to a creature that isn’t human recalls, of course, “E.T.” Throughout, early Steven Spielberg is Lee’s point of reference: the simplicity of childhood combined with the most advanced (and delightful) film technology.

Putting this astronomically expensive machinery in the hands of a director as sensitive as Ang Lee wasn’t a complete gamble on the part of 20th Century Fox: In addition to “Brokeback Mountain” and “Sense and Sensibility,” he also directed “Hulk.”

For the magnificent tiger, which truly is frightening, Lee in fact worked with four animals, filming a whole library of movements and facial expressions for the digital artists to use as reference points.

(It’s a little bit disappointing to learn that Suraj Sharma, the young actor who plays Pi with great conviction, was never actually alone in a boat with the beast.)

A whale rushing and leaping, a school of dolphins soaring, a sudden invasion of flying fish that comes on like a thunderstorm: Lee amazes.

The movie is so beautiful and, for anyone who loves animals, so emotional that it might have worked as a simple adventure story (which is how children will perceive it).

But then, I suspect, Lee wouldn’t have found much reason to make it. As it is, you may not share his faith in God, but his faith in film lights every frame.

“Life of Pi,” from 20th Century Fox, is scheduled to open across the country on Nov. 21. Rating: *****

‘Caesar’ Dies

The high-security wing of Rome’s Rebibbia Prison has had a drama program since 2000. In “Caesar Must Die,” the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (“Padre Padrone”) use it to film a modern-dress, modern-language “Julius Caesar.”

With its themes of conspiracy and betrayal, it’s the right Shakespearean tragedy; most of the actor-prisoners have ties to organized crime.

They play both their roles and themselves. The film at first appears to be a documentary about the production.

Only gradually does it become clear that the jokes and face-offs that interrupt the rehearsals are part of the script, and that the “rehearsals,” shot all over the prison in the right scenic order, are the Tavianis’ staging.

The movie lasts just 76 minutes, and every one of them is intense.

“Caesar Must Die,” from Adopt Films, will be shown again at the Walter Reade Theater Oct. 1 at 8:45 p.m. and at the Francis Beale Theater on Oct. 8, at 1 p.m. It is scheduled to open on Feb. 6. Rating: ****1/2

Passionate ‘Amour’

Not long into “Amour,” Anne, an elderly Parisian music teacher who lives with her husband of many years, Georges, suffers a seizure. From there we watch her decline and Georges’s increasingly futile attempts to care for her.

Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, both now in their 80s, play the couple in what may be the finest and harshest performances of their long careers.

The film is written and directed, impeccably, by Michael Haneke and gorgeously shot by Darius Khondji; a bourgeois Parisian apartment probably hasn’t been this caressed by the camera since “Last Tango in Paris.”

But do you really want to be there? “Amour” is aggressively intimate and unblinking. At one point Georges tries to bar their daughter from the sickroom. “None of that,” he tells her, “deserves to be shown.”

“Amour,” from Sony Pictures Classics, will be shown again at Alice Tully Hall on Oct. 5 at 6 p.m. and Oct. 6 at 3 p.m. It is scheduled to open on Dec. 19. Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Very Good
**     Good
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Amanda Gordon on Scene.

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