Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Devil and Pi

When I started cinema going - many years ago - you often saw two features, between which there was an interval (and indeed after an evening performance, they played the National Anthem)!

Today it so happened I accidentally re-created the experience.

At lunch I watched 'The Devil Rides Out' (which the postman had delivered this morning) then clambered onto my bicycle to go see 'The Life of Pi' (though not in 3D).

I cannot now recall what possessed me to buy a copy of this Hammer Studio classic (The Devil...) except I remember watching it, alone, late one night in my early teens, when I still felt a residual fear of the dark. I was suitably terrorised and went to bed with the Lord's Prayer on my lips and the sheets over my head, hoping the Devil would not notice me! I am reliably informed by one who might be expected to know (Gary Lachman) that Wheatley's rendering of Black Magic ritual and the White Magic (and religious) response to it are accurate (to the cumulative imagination of those who interest themselves in such things). It is a wonderful period piece, with Christopher Lee playing against type as the hero, and highly enjoyable as I chewed my Belorussian homemade salami (thank you grannies).

Amidst the well-played romp; however, is a serious question: whose imagination do you wish to owe your allegiance to? The power that is the Devil's or that of God's and why is God's imagination apparently (at the outset) so less credible to the tempted young people than the Devil's (though like the US 7th Cavalry or the dead soldiers in the Lord of the Rings it rides to the rescue in the end)?

The film too contains a subtle theological point - goodness apparently needs human collaboration - God has no hands but these (as St Teresa of Avila puts it) where the Devil (whilst also to be summoned) seems to enjoy a fair degree of autonomy, when let out and about?

There is a similar question at the heart of 'The Life of Pi'. Pi's tells two stories about the shipwreck and the aftermath. The one is fantastic yet ennobling, the latter is full of human frailty and vice which story do you choose as being true? Why is it that the latter story is superficially more credible -  mainly I expect because it is the place from which, sadly, we commonly live - but are we not free to imagine differently and in living out that imaginative difference, live in new ways?

God is omnipresent in the Life of Pi (even his absence is a God shaped void) and God is there as a series of imaginative possibilities. By imagination I do not mean 'unreal' quite the opposite, God's realness is in the stories God makes possible for us to live - and one of those stories, Pi suggests, includes the story of his absence - the possibility of our reason achieving things on its 'own' - represented by Pi's rationalist father whose practical skills Pi puts to use on his long voyage across the Pacific. The measure of all things is not man - reason only goes so far - but the measure passes through man (and tigers...) as we consciously embody in our possibilities the stories that are God's and ours. God needs us to bring God to life in the world.

Both films, in very different ways, invite people to ponder living in God's imagination - and to recognise how spacious that is (though the way in may be narrow and demanding).

Pi in childhood tries living simultaneously as a Hindu, Christian and Muslim - and the book (more funnily and more pointedly than the film) asks why not? Why not indeed...

In passing, I thought, like Ang Lee, its director, that the book was unable to be filmed, which is true, but the film is nevertheless a highly enjoyable and creditable attempt, and meanwhile stands four square on its own terms. 

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