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written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
85 minutes
Pi Links
Darren Aronofsky and Sean Gullette Interview
Darren Aronofsky Interview
Sundance Film Festival: Pi
Pi Crew
Director and Screenwriter
Darren Aronofsky
Eric Watson
Scott Vogel
Executive Producer
Randy Simon
David Godbout, Jonah Smith, Tyler Brodie
Matthew Lebatique
Oren Sarch
Production Designer
Matthew Maraffi
Clint Mansell
Principal Cast
Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Samia Shoaib, Pam Hart, Stephen Pearlman
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Donner

Darren Aronofsky's first full-length film, Pi, is a work of art. And allow all of the connotations of that dangerous word -- art -- to sink in. That word that has been bound, gagged, and eviscerated recently with the advent of "family values" and the controversy created by the likes of Jesse Helms, Tipper Gore, and the NEA, not to mention the artists themselves. But art still has power, and Pi is without a doubt a powerful film.

Even the medium is "artsy" -- black and white. Or, as Aronofsky says, black or white, since there are no gray tones in the film, just high contrast. But this effect, like the art of the film as a whole, is never self-indulgent, nor does it become a substitute for other elements, such as plot, character, or suspense.

Pi focuses obsessively on the character of Maximillian Cohen -- it is even shot in the first person, meaning that there are no scenes shown in which Max is not present. This also means that the viewer's sole entry into the film is through the character of Max, and the limited perspective plays a major role in the audience's understanding of what is happening.

Max is a brilliant young mathematician who bases his life and research on three assumptions: mathematics is the language of numbers; the universe can be represented through numbers; these numbers form patterns. From this he postulates that the actions of anything in the world take on a pattern, with the idea that these patterns can then be discovered and predicted.

His experiments with this idea revolve around a finite set of random numbers -- the stock market. Through this closed system he tries to find the patterns that might be applied to everyday life and activity. The number known as pi (the constant that is arrived at when you divide the circumference of a circle by its diameter) is intricately involved in the graphing of the patterns Max has found. Max is also an adept mathematician, finding enjoyment in racing to multiply and divide two- and three-digit numbers against a calculator owned by his friendly neighbor's little girl

Of course, many of you may think this is insane, and that is half the point. Is Max a genius, or is he insane? He is certainly sick, and he has unexplained convulsions and headaches of an intensity that would probably kill a less driven person, but instead serve as unwelcome interludes of human frailty in Max's otherwise abstract, math-absorbed life.

Yes, there are other characters besides Max: some friends, and some enemies -- people who want to use Max's knowledge for their own ends. As the saying goes, "When you play with fire...." And Maximillian's fire takes a particularly volatile form -- predicting the behavior of stocks leads to the ability to make money. Max's ability attracts attention, and when you're able to do something that makes this much money, you could argue that any attention is bad attention.

There is also a Kabbalah sect -- a particular form of Jewish mystics -- who get involved, again drawn by Maximillian's mathematical research. As part of their beliefs, they seek out mathematical patterns in the Torah to help them find the way to God, and they are convinced that Max is onto something bigger than anything they have ever found.

What starts out as a painful look into one man's obsessions and particular genius ends up pitting the pure science of mathematics against religious and financial obsession. It's not enough to know how something works, the Wall Street financiers and Jewish mystics insist. There must be an application, a practical use.

Meanwhile, in the background, Max appears to be slowly going insane. Or at least finding out that knowing how it all works is perhaps a bit too much for the human brain to handle.

Aronofsky's directorial technique may be shocking for audiences more familiar with the slick predictability of Hollywood filmmaking, but that should not deter anyone from seeing this movie. Think back to the last time you actually felt the pain of a character's trauma shoot though your own head. When the suspense and uncertainty really had you on the edge of your seat, not only afraid of what might happen, but unsure what its consequences might be -- much like we often are when confronted with doubt and danger in real life.

Aronofsky manipulates the camera, and such elements as sound and light, deftly, displaying a fine sense of what is really emotive about a situation. If he wants you to be frightened, he doesn't waste time on tricks and effects. Instead, he simply loosens his hold on the bleak sense of fear and uncertainty that pervades Pi, and you quickly learn what suspense is really about. At the same time, he is able to portray the beauty of everyday life just as convincingly, again using contrast rather than smoothing things out to make them more palatable.

Also, don't be put off by the amount of math references involved, even if math isn't your thing. This is a science fiction story. You don't have to understand everything about physics to appreciate hardcore science fiction, although it probably helps to have an interest. In the same way, Pi will be especially interesting to those who find abstract mathematics exciting, but this isn't a prerequisite to enjoying the film. In fact, even if you don't like math, you may find Aronofsky's treatment here a bit inspiring. You may go home and pull out your old high school calculus books and think, Hmm... should I?

Pi is not perfect -- there are a few places where the dialogue falls a bit flat. Occasionally lines seem a bit too self-conscious. But this is quickly rectified and overcome by the power of the film as a whole, and by the intensity of Aronofsky's directing. Without hesitation, I would recommend you go see it. I'm going again, soon.

Copyright © 1998 by Chris Donner

Chris Donner is a freelance writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan and working in Connecticut. He will read almost anything once, as it makes the train ride go faster. He is currently writing a screenplay, a novel, several short stories, a collection of poems, and a letter to his mother. The letter will probably be done first.

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