Truth and Beauty

Here in Papua New Guinea, we don’t always get the pleasure of watching films or TV shows at the same time as the rest of the world.  This, of course, leads to such embarrassing things as people celebrating the winners of American Idol six months after the fact or, in my case, giving commentaries on films twelve months after they were in the theatre.  But I was never one to be easily embarrassed (except at Mexican restaurants on my birthday), so what follows is just that.

The movie is Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on the book by Yann Martel.  Some friends got it in the mail a few weeks back, so we all sat down and watched it over a bowl of popcorn and some cream sodas (delicious stuff, by the way).  If you’re the sort of person who listens to music for the sound more than the words or watches movies for the visuals more than the story, find a spare two hours as soon as you can to marvel at some of the most spectacular cinematography around.  The film is simply beautiful.

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The story, too, has plenty of beauty to go around: it’s mysterious at moments, redemptive at others, and gripping in all the right ways.  As a film that tries to find hope amidst the reality of a dark world, it falls into that category of stories that I typically call my favorite.  What unsettles me about the film, and the reason I find it worth mentioning here, is its source of hope.

(If you haven’t seen the film and plan to, don’t read any further – spoilers are coming.)

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In a pivotal scene at the end of the film, the narrator (Pi himself) gives the viewer two options for understanding the story he’s just told.  Either everything we’ve watched for the past two hours (an epic story of a lone boy’s survival on a life raft with a bengal tiger) is true, or what really happened was far more grim (think cannibalism, abandonment, and the cold-blooded murder of Pi’s mother).

“So which story do you prefer?” Pi asks the writer who is interviewing him.

“The one with the tiger,” replies the writer. “That’s the better story.”

And we, of course, agree.

“Thank you,” says Pi, “And so it goes with God.”

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The implication, of course, is that life presents us with a similar choice – in short: Truth or Beauty.  And people choose to sincerely believe in things like Hope and Love and God because those things are beautiful, not because they are true.  If all you care about is Truth, you’ll be left with the hopelessness of stories like the “real” one: the story where Pi watches his loving mother murdered in cold blood.

This is, as I mentioned before, the very thing that unsettles me.  Hope, the film seems to be saying, is possible in the face of dark reality.  And to that, we raise a glass.  However, it doesn’t end there.  Pi tells us that to embrace that Hope, we must ignore Truth.  The only real hope, then, is a false sort of hope.  How very hopeless indeed!

Christianity, fortunately, makes no such claim. As Paul puts it so plainly:

“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins… If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

And I couldn’t agree more.  If the only Beauty that exists is devoid of Truth, it is no beauty at all.  “Mercy and Truth are met together,” writes the Psalmist, and Keats (no stranger to eloquence himself) agrees:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

But I have already said far too much.  Have any of you seen the film?  What are your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Truth and Beauty

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this post. I thought about this same thing when I saw the movie. However, I was under the impression that the epic story told for two hours of the movie was the truth, and the more realistic alternative was something Pi made up because people didn’t believe the other one. But perhaps that was just wishful thinking.

  2. Have watched Life of Pi and it really is beautiful.  Hope thing are going well!  Praying for you.  Love, The Haygoods

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  3. Nice analysis, Alan. This is one of my favorite movies ever…..which may not be too comforting to the moviemakers since some of the others include The World According to Garp, 3 Amigos, Raising Arizona, LOTR, Airplane and Monty Python’s in Search of the Holy Grail.

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