Π, or Pi, is a 1998 film directed by Darren Aronofsky. An independent, low-budget film, it’s received some critical acclaim in indie film circuits. I’ve been hearing about it essentially since it came out, mostly in the form of praising how different it is.
It is different. I’ll certainly agree to that. Filmed in grainy, high-contrast black and white, it has a very different look to it. And its plot, about a number theorist who is seeking — and just possibly finding — a number at the root of various patterns, is one that would generally be avoided by major studios, or at least not approached in this manner.
The home of a number theorist, complete with desk, chair, and computer. Sanity optional.
Sean Gullette plays Max Cohen, a number theorist who has arrived at a few unorthodox beliefs and one inescapable conclusion from those beliefs. He believes everything can be represented numerically, and that any system of numbers eventually yields some sort of pattern. Therefore, everything in life follows a pattern, and can therefore be predicted if only the pattern is known. And so, using his home-built computer (which for an advanced computer has some curiously antiquated equipment, such as a 5.25″ floppy disk drive), he starts searching for the pattern in the stock market.
He doesn’t socialize much. His neighbor Devi (Samia Shoaib) tries to be sociable, but he brushes her off. His former professor Sol (Mark Margolis) is his only true friend, and he tries to convince him to take a break from the quest for the sake of his sanity. Sol has a point; the problem with seeking a pattern in everything is that if you assume everything falls into a pattern, then there’s no random chance. Nobody looking at you is doing so without a purpose. Nobody contacts you without a goal. And Max is soon contacted by two groups who are interested in his research… a business organization, possibly illegal, represented by a woman named Marcy (Pamela Hart), and a group of Jewish numerologists represented by a man named Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman). Marcy’s group wants profit. Lenny’s group believes the pattern can be found in the Torah, and that the resulting 216-digit number represents the true name of God.
It’s a lot of pressure on a guy who quadruple-locks his apartment door.
Gullette does a very good job of portraying Max as a man who is unstable to begin with, gradually descending into madness, and hounded by all sides. Unfortunately, Aronofsky does not simply sit back and let Gullette do all the work there. Max’s mental issues come in the form of severe headaches and seizures, and Aronofsky chooses to show how these feel from the inside by playing further with the light levels of the scenes, and most especially by introducing screeching sounds when the attacks strike. The sound is, at least for someone who is sensitive to higher-pitched noises, unbearable. It does a good job of showing Max’s agony, but only by inflicting said agony on the audience itself. It got to the point where I was dreading the moments where Max’s hand started twitching almost as much as Max himself. And not to put too fine a point on it, but if your movie is causing me pain, I’m not enjoying the movie. Coupled with the too-high contrast of the film, the movie inadvertently makes an excellent argument that just because a decision is artistic doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for the film. Some repetitive scenes that seem stylish at first but get old after a while, and a tendency for Max to leave the phone ringing indefinitely also factor into Aronofsky making a film that is relentlessly obnoxious.
The plot has a decent basic concept, but I didn’t feel as though it did enough with it. Max’s insanity is a moderately interesting story, but only moderately, and the rest almost winds up feeling superfluous. For a film about finding patterns, it doesn’t seem to have much of one itself. There is also, if I can be permitted to quibble a bit, something that bothered me about a particular scene. It’s not a major spoiler, but it is about a specific event, so if you haven’t seen the film, feel free to skip the next paragraph.
Max accuses the Jewish numerologist group of having already translated and spoken all of the possible numbers that the name of God could be. But there’s a problem with that, since it’s a 216-digit number. If we assume there isn’t a leading zero, that’s 9 possibilities for the first digit, and 10 for each subsequent digit, which means there are 9×10215 possible numbers it could be. That’s just basic combinatorics; I may not be able to picture 9×10215 in my head, but I can tell that’s what the number is, and I can tell that it means there are far, far too many possible “words” for the numerologists to have spoken them all. To give an idea, John Moschitta Jr. is the world record holder for fast talking, at 586 words a minute. Even if we make the ludicrously generous assumption that the translation of each possible 216-digit number amounts to a one-or-two syllable word, it would take Moschitta approximately 2.9×10207 years, non-stop, to say all the words. (That’s a 2, then a 9, followed by 206 zeroes.) I wouldn’t normally nitpick on something like this, especially if it were just Joe Average Character saying it, but… I noticed the problem as he made the accusation, and this guy is supposed to be worlds better at math than I am. Even the mental instability doesn’t excuse it, because his mathematical prowess is apparently unaffected. I don’t expect perfect scientific accuracy from a film, and certainly not when the basic premise of the film is essentially science-fiction, but I do expect that a mathematical genius isn’t going to suggest something that is immediately obvious as being a mathematical impossibility. It’s not a big issue… but it is an issue.
The cinematic style of the film is definitely unique, and although the high contrast bothered me some, I can’t argue entirely with the decision. In fact, if it weren’t for the other factors, I’d probably be mostly all right with it (it could stand to be toned down a notch even then, though). And the film does have a decent premise, and a good portrayal of a man slowly going insane. But it doesn’t have much else to it. And there are too many factors that made the film a simply unpleasant experience. So in the end, I have to give Pi an entirely appropriate score, of, approximately, pi.
Rounded down, of course.