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Aspiring screenwriters often craft scripts about misunderstood genius to launch their careers (Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Affleck and Damon’s Good Will Hunting, to name a few). The frequency is no accident. It is a function of the author’s shallow pride combined with a subliminal premeditated strategy. On the one hand the writer benefits from a transference of the character’s smarts – he or she is believed to be as intelligent as their creation – and secondly, perhaps these young writers in all honesty view themselves as operating on a different wavelength as everybody else.
Darren Aronofsky, a talented boy from Brooklyn, entered the Hollywood landscape in 1998 (at 29) with his own tale of tormented genius with Pi. Much like Mr. Anderson, he came equipped with a film school degree and penchant for stylized storytelling. Pi might just put on display every camera trick and technique in the text book, all in a bravely colorless palate. If some David Byrne of Peter Gabriel music were playing in the background, one could easily imagine the film as a look-what-I-can-do 1990’s MTV clip. That isn’t to say Aronofsky was or is a snake oil salesman pretender. He is a gifted filmmaker and Pi delivers a jarring, nightmarish story, told with frenetic energy and imagination. Aronofsky would only later go overboard (after an even more stunning mainstream debut with Requiem for a Dream), writing and directing the pretentiously esoteric fable The Fountain, but he thankfully came back down to earth this year with a straightforward rendering of someone else’s script directing The Wrestler. Engaged to the most radiant Jewess of our era, Rachel Weisz, and once again recognized as a formidable directing visionary, Aronofsky has seemingly solved life’s more difficult equations.
And it all begins with Pi, a movie about incomprehensible equations. Perhaps, in that sense, it all begins with being a misunderstood Jewish genius, because whether Aronofsky qualifies or not, his protagonist in Pi does. In the grand tradition of Franz Kafka, Pi relates the inner and outer conflicts of a psychologically unbalanced but razor sharp Jew in a horrifyingly tense setting. To be even more ethnically specific, the Jew, Max, like Kafka’s Josef K, is deeply paranoid, but with apparent justification. The non-Jewish world – outwardly friendly – wants to use him, exploit him, sap him of his Jewish brilliance and discard whatever shell remains. But wait – Aronofsky supplements an additional wicked element to one-up Kafka – the Jews in Pi, coddling and caring at first glance, just might want to abuse Max as well.
Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette, who is purposefully weird and strongly reminds of Chainsaw from Summer School) shuttles through the subway systems under New York City like a dazed rat with numbers careening through his head, attempting to split his skull. He searches for patterns and codes, all the while a moment from his youth cycles through his memory – the time when he stared into the sun despite his mother’s warning and he nearly went blind. His brain operates like a computer, cold and mechanical, with no app for human connection.
Max might be using number theory trying to get rich quick by predicting stock outcomes, or he might be on to something catastrophic, or he might be a government experiment gone haywire, or he might simply be losing his fragile mind. And that is the part of the movie that makes sense! That’s the setup. Up next is the screeching brain, and the spawning insects, and the zigzag shaped head tumor, and finally the 216 digit number that they all want. After all, it might just bring the Meshiach according to some renegade Chassidim (likely Lubavitcher based on their efforts to enwrap Max in teffilin – or is that just a cover?) The Chassidim claim to be his brothers but are just as likely to beat him as to recite with him a brachah. Pi creates a troubling narrative (one could say especially for orthodox Jews, but I wouldn’t) that is a challenge to follow. Regardless, Aronofsky’s commitment to his material manages to pull the film off smoothly.
The most shockingly insightful Jewish bit built into the film comes when Max is dragged before a Rebbi who claims the two share the same last name. We are awakened to the fact that Max is a descendent of priests and that maybe, just maybe, he is not simply a raving lunatic, but a chosen one, given a divine message. Maybe there was something to those Discovery seminars where the Torah’s letters were segmented into equidistant boxes and incredible word combinations were, well, discovered. Maybe math is God’s language and if we can break the code we can comprehend Him and His universe. Aronofsky was born to a man named Avraham who taught science in Flatbush Yeshivah, so he very well may know his stuff and may have attempted through his screenplay to make a major statement about Hashem and Torah and our inability to connect in the formal way, therefore seeking out an informal way that might just transcend all others.
My favorite theory to that end is in going back to Max’s memory about his mother’s warning regarding staring into the sun and the risk of blindness that is repeated numerous times throughout the movie. I connect that with Max’s constantly shaking hands, a focal point in the film. I connect that with the old white bearded Rebbi speaking of the Kohanim and their task carrying the load of tradition.
Staring. Shaking Hands. Kohanim. Threat of Blindness.
Pi is certainly about the burden of genius, but it very well may also be about mythical powers and faulty dogma in Judaism. All things considered, we may have to give Aronofsky the benefit of the doubt.