“This is insanity, or maybe it’s genius”
Pi is aggressively high concept, bold and distinctive, but it suffers from a slightly off-putting film school sensibility. Darren Aronofsky is a talented director, and Pi functions well as a showcase for his talent, but the content of the film itself is sophomoric. It is ambitious and entertaining, yet not as groundbreaking or unique as it first seems.
There is a pervading paranoia in Pi that comes straight out of classic film noir. Our main character is a math genius, Max, who has built a supercomputer that will help him to reveal the pattern in the stock market, and ultimately everything in the universe. His radical ideas are of interest to a Hasidic Cabalistic sect, and some high up Wall Street people. The Cabalists think Max can help them discover the secret numerical name of god, and the Wall Street people think he can help them control the stock market. At first their seductions are benign, if aggressive, but as Max gets closer to a revelation, and his sanity slips away, their intentions become far more sinister.
Pi‘s most striking feature is its grainy, high-contrast black and white photography. This imagery is complimented by some flashy editing that is discontinuous and jarring. It is here, in its editing, that the film pays homage to the soviet classics, particularly the montage theorists—Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, and Dziga Vertov. Put forth by these masters was the notion that much of a film’s meaning can be created in the editing. Editing has many uses, and continuity is just one of them, and the least interesting. By playing with rhythm, tone and juxtoposition, the editing can not only lead us through the narrative, but also suggest meaning. Pi’s editing is designed to stimulate our intuition, and allow us to experience the world as Max does. Unfortunately, Max’s emotional journey is not particularly complex, and so the stylistic devices of the film quickly lose their potency.
The mathematical and philosophical references—Euclid, Fibonacci, Golden Ratio, Chaos and Order—are familiar to anyone who has watched a few BBC documentaries or read some standard textbooks. These are not new ideas. And the basic story—a genius gone mad trying to solve a problem—is well-worn. Now, all stories share some basic structures, but what makes them unique are the details of character and theme. Pi is not about its characters or their struggles. It is actually about itself—its craft and ideas. Unfortunately, the film only scratches the surface of these ideas.
I was most intrigued by the relationship between Max and his mentor Sol—a mathematician who has made himself ill from his obsessive theoretical research. Both Max and Sol are passionate about math, but their viewpoints differ greatly, and so their discussions are intense, showing us the beauty and perfection of Socratic method. However, it is difficult to truly connect on any emotional level to the plight of either man. We are given a lot of sensory input, and we fixate on the visceral experience, and never really feel the emotional weight of Max’s journey.
The film’s ending is ambiguous, and obviously meant to be interpreted. Max, after discovering that his mentor has died from the stress of trying to solve the central problem that drives the narrative, desperately tries to remove the prophetic number from his mind by drilling into his skull. We immediately cut to a park, where he sits calmly watching the leaves. When a girl from the neighbourhood asks him to solve a math problem, he is unable to supply the answer, but stares lovingly up at the trees. It is the only time we have seen Max at peace. Whenever he has looked at trees, or people, or numbers, he has been deeply troubled and focused on understanding the phenomenon he sees before him. But now, he is calm. There are many interpretations floating around. Is it a dream? Is it symbolic? There is no wrong answer. My personal feeling is that Max did survive his self-inflicted lobotomy, and removed the number from his consciousness, and the whole of his intellectual capacity with it. Now, for Max, ignorance is bliss. He is not disturbed by the complexity of the patterns in nature because he no longer has any need to discover an underlying pattern. He can now just accept the world as it presents itself to him. The torment is gone, but so is his awareness and curiosity.
I was entertained by Pi. It is stylish and gripping, but it didn’t leave me with much. It strikes me as a small-scale Inception. It has the same dynamic—a high-concept narrative that posits highly philosophical ideas (without actually exploring them), and a breathtaking assault on the senses. These are well-made and exciting films, but they aren’t particularly deep. Pi is really a glorified film school exercise in style and form. It is effective, sure, but it is not groundbreaking cinema. Aronofsky has since directed several deeply resonant character studies about the self-destructive nature of obsession—Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan. These films, while sharing many of the themes and stylistic devices of Pi, are far more emotionally charged. It is worth noting that he didn’t write the screenplays for these later films. Aronofsky’s script for Pi is its weakest element, and a waste of his directorial talents. With capable writers, Aronofsky’s vision has shone brighter with each new film.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman