Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’ roars into the Oscar season

NEW YORK — Translating Yann Martel’s award-winning novel “Life of Pi” to film has proven to be a daunting task for filmmakers kicking the tires on it for the better part of a decade, but in the hands of someone like Ang Lee, it was already getting off on the right foot. While the film, which opens the New York Film Festival this evening, takes some time revving past a clunky first act, it eventually settles into a visionary sweet spot for well over an hour. Messy though it may be, it’s affecting on the whole for the truths with which it concerns itself and the journey it so passionately suggests.

The story of the film is the visual scope of the endeavor, and Lee’s work with visual effects artists and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “TRON Legacy”) has produced some of the most awe-inspiring images likely to grace a screen this year. And indeed, Lee wanted that extra power, so much so that he was basically thinking of 3D before he was thinking of 3D, as he put it at a press conference this morning. “I didn’t think it was possible without 3D,” he said. “It needed another dimension.”

It also needed an actor capable of holding the screen opposite some impressive razzle dazzle and not get lost in the mix. As the titular Pi, Suraj Sharma actually pulls that feat off impressively, finding the right emotional notes and never overplaying them, even when they demand a little extra emphasis. Irrfan Khan, meanwhile, when not losing ground to the at times slightly smothering early portions (which simply don’t have the visual impact, try as Lee might to make them visually interesting), is a calm and stoic presence throughout as the adult Pi, recalling his tale. In particular, a tear-drenched moment late in the film lands just perfectly. “Thank you, Richard Parker.”

What marks “Life of Pi” as relevant and important above all else is its somewhat universalist heart. At a time when religious strife is as troubling as ever, a story featuring a main character welcoming of multiple faiths and challenged by nature regardless of them can truly resonate. It never quite falls into any kind of New Age traps because it sticks, ultimately, to simple, unrefined truth. Chaos, nature, but beneath all, something more. That’s all we really know, anyway. “I studied philosophy,” Martel said at this morning’s press conference, “which is a very good way to turn yourself into an atheist or an agnostic.”

The film ought to play well for Academy types, particularly given the focus with which 20th Century Fox can campaign it to them. Best Picture and Best Director are certainly in play, though acting and writing nominations could be hard to come by. Nevertheless, recognition throughout the crafts, from cinematography to film editing, original score to sound fields and, of course, Best Visual Effects, ought to help it to a bountiful tally.

More on “Life of Pi” in this afternoon’s Oscar Talk podcast and, likely, more to come.

With that, the 50th annual New York Film Festival is off to the races. Other films premiering here include Alan Berlinger’s “First Cousin Once Removed,” Robert Zemeckis’s “Flight” and David Chase’s “Not Fade Away.” Additional highlights include Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Amour” from Michael Haneke and Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Caesar Must Die,” as well as Focus Features’ “Hyde Park on Hudson” and IFC Films’ “Frances Ha,” among others. Nicole Kidman and Richard Peña will receive tributes.

The New York Film Festival runs September 28 – October 14.