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'Pi': Nothing Simple About It

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 1998

  Movie Critic

Sean Gullette stars in "Pi."
(Artisan Entertainment)

Darren Aronofsky
Sean Gullette;
Mark Margolis;
Ben Shenkman;
Pamela Hart;
Stephen Pearlman
Running Time:
1 hour, 25 minutes
For some profanity and violence
"Pi" may be the most engrossing piece of cyberpunk cinema yet-it took best director's prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival-but it could only have been made by a film student in the age of "The X-Files." It's "The Cabala of Dr. Caligari," with a little chaos theory a la Chris Carter thrown in. It's not only a case of deus ex machina, but Deus est machina-God is the machine-and His wires are showing.

In the original "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," a 1919 German surrealist silent film, the exaggeratedly dark-eyed sleepwalker played by Conrad Veidt is manipulated by the hypnotist Caligari for his own evil ends. But when ordered to murder a beautiful young woman, Veidt somehow finds the inner strength to resist.

Writer-director Darren Aronofsky has transformed the susceptible sleepwalker into the gradually disintegrating mathematical genius Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), whose simultaneously excruciating and mystically visionary migraines, and the increasing doses of drugs he takes to fight them, replace the hypnotist's spell; and whose ultimate glimpse of God-Divine love/erotic unity/supreme knowledge-replaces the selfless love that offers the sleepwalker redemption.

On top of that, Aronofsky piles all the seemingly interrelated mystical and mathematical tenets that have haunted humans throughout history: geometrical patterns, numerical sequences, phrenology (the study of intelligence and spirit according to the bumps on the skull) and above all the Cabala, the mystical orthodox Jewish belief that the path to God has been hidden, coded, in the letters and numbers of the Torah. Where Veidt is pursued by the other villagers, Max is pursued by the Cabalist Hasids of his Lower East Side neighborhood, who think he has deciphered the 216-number key to the code. Caligari wants the sleepwalker to kill for him; Wall Street financiers want Max to help them make a killing on the market.

Not only that, but Aronofsky's warning about the dangers of playing God here seems to apply to almost everyone: the ultra-mystical rabbi who believes he is the chosen one to whom the divine code belongs; the financial sharks willing to trade an ultra-secret military computer chip for monetary power; and Max's former teacher, who suffered a stroke because of his own work on the same number, and who, in effect, commits suicide in an attempt to warn Max off.

The strongest warning comes from Max himself, who pushes his computer to the point that it attains self-consciousness-a sort of silicon soul-and immediately dies. It's poor Frankenstein's monster again, doomed to self-destruction.

The film's puns and metaphors are almost irresistible-a code as elaborate as the Cabala itself. Most of Max's visions, or hallucinations, occur in the subway (i.e., the subconscious). The great 216-digit number is not actually pi, but pi is an infinitely continuing fraction-a cosmic puzzle in itself. Max names his computer "Euclid" after the Greek mathematician who first transformed the universe into numbers-that is, formulated geometry. And finally, in Hebrew, "Cohen" means "priest," so it's Max who is actually the greatest rabbi of all.

The visual style of "Pi" is almost a spoof of "Caligari," shot in harsh black-and-white with the camera vertiginously angled. Gullette is almost a caricature of Veidt, his hair similarly wild (until he shaves it off and becomes the literal cyberpunk) and his eyes even more heavily shadowed. But Max's over-wired apartment, a cross between a neuron schematic and an alien nest, resembles the intelligent computer RV that once held Fox Mulder prisoner; and the soundtrack is post "Millennium"-technoid, disruptive, full of cosmic static and exploding novas. (The score is by Clint Mansell, formerly of Pop Will Eat Itself.) And while the mixed-speed camera work is often disorienting and nightmarish, Max is too often framed in pure white like a magazine ad for black denim.

One last "Caligari" tribute: At the end of the original film, Veidt is revealed sitting alone on a park bench, the village loony; the entire story, it is now revealed, has been a paranoid-schizophrenic fantasy. At the end of "Pi," Max is sitting back on his own park bench, apparently safe not only from his metamorphosing migraines but from his pursuers-raising the question: Did they exist?

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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