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PI

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Samia Shoaib, Pamela Hart
Director:  Darren Aronofsky
Audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  85 Minutes
Release Date:  January 12, 1999

Film ****

One of the real joys of being a movie critic is the rare film that comes along every so often that seems to challenge the way we think about different things, including the art of filmmaking. Pi is such a movie, and then some. The ingenious storyline is enough to make it stand head and shoulders above most pictures coming out of Hollywood nowadays. Then, throw in the fact that it's actually a little indie film made for less than $60,000, and you have a staggering example of what can be accomplished by a director with a clear vision and some intelligence.

The story centers around a tortured genius named Max Cohen (Gullette). He suffers from what seems to be extreme high blood pressure, which often leads to popping pills, self injections, nosebleeds, and hallucinations. He has shut himself up in his room with a computer he designed called Euclid. He believes that mathematics is the true language of the universe and nature, and that all things can be understood through finding patterns in their numbers. He is testing his theory on the seemingly chaotic world of the stock market.

Soon, two groups appear on the scene, both interested in Max's work. One is a financial firm, wanting him to share his stock market insights. Another is a Jewish religious group, who want his help in studying the numerology of the Torah. Somewhere inside, they claim, is the 216 digit true name of God.

But for Max, the obsession is destroying him. His computer fries. The headaches are getting worse. In a memorable sequence, he hallucinates that he sees his own brain on the steps of the subway. Both groups are coming after him, thinking he's holding back. The genius is giving way to madness.

Writer/director Aronofsky delivers not only a fascinating and believable work with this film, but a highly kinetic one as well, unusual for a low budget picture. Stylistically, this film might remind you of Eraserhead, or the Japanese film Tetsuo the Iron Man. The camera is constantly on the move, in many cases, harnessed to Gullette as he runs and falls, keeping his figure perfectly centered as he moves. The result is an exhilarating visual experience, one that definitely deserved the director's prize it won at Sundance last year.

But ultimately, Pi is not about style over substance, but rather, style enhancing substance.  Aronofsky likes to use his cameras to demonstrate what his characters see, either in reality or their imaginations:  hence the blinding lights, the hallucinatory quality of the images, the extreme close-ups.  As a director, he’s not merely showing us madness, but inviting us to become a willing participant in it.

Pi is a triumph, and a must-see for anybody with a taste for non-mainstream film.

Video ***

This movie was shot on inexpensive, high contrast black and white film stock. As a result, some of the shots are extremely grainy, but that is NOT a transfer problem, nor the fault of lack of anamorphic enhancement. This is the way the film was meant to look.

Audio ***

The soundtrack is lively, too, filled with some interesting original techno music that favorably compliments the movie's subject matter.  The music, along with some creepy, punchy sound effects, gives the track it’s dynamic range.  Dialogue, which can be a problem sometimes in low budget films, is not one here:  all spoken words are clear and crisp, and with good balance to the extreme audio effects and score.

Features ****

Outstanding features, including two commentary tracks (one by Aronofsky, one by Gullette), two trailers, a behind the scenes montage, a look at the number Pi and why it's fascinated scholars for centuries, lost scenes, a music video, cast and crew bio, and production notes. These should be an inspiration to anyone who's ever dreamed of making their own movie.

Summary:

Pi is a terrific example of moviemaking where high imagination triumphs over low budget.  Writer/director Aronofsky proves himself one of the most unique and freshest young cinematic visionaries around with this picture, one that will definitely appeal to the more adventurous moviegoer.  You should definitely try a piece of this Pi.