π Pi (1998)

The following review was originally published as a part of Debuts Blogathon held by the awesome Chris from Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and Mark from Three Rows Back. Check their websites to see everyone’s contribution and enlightening insights about the debut features of various director. Read my extended review below, possible TLDR and spoilers ahead.

(1) Mathematics is the language of nature,
(2)  Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers, and
(3) There are patterns everywhere in nature.

These are the three believes that our protagonist, of Darren Aronofsky’s first debut feature, believed in. A resounding empathy to René Decartes, father of modern mathematics, own belief that ‘the universe is written in mathematical language’. Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a number theorist and mathematical genius, he is looking for a formula that can be the answer of anything in the world, from key to predict the stock market to unravel the secrets of the universe through the means of numbers. Max isolated himself from normalcy in order to decode these mathematical pattern he believed in, to understand the universe. Through conversations over Go, Fibonacci Sequences and Golden Ratio, and divine numerical breakthrough from Torah and the 216 letter name of God, becomes implausible evidence of Max’s apophenia. Pi is a study in one genius descend into madness as he was driven by his obsession to find enlightenment and order within the chaotic universe.

Symbolism and philosophical tools are utilized to enrich the plot and successfully fascinates me. Take the game of Go for example, described as the ultimate mathematical challenge. The Ancient Japanese considered the Go board to be a microcosm of the universe. When it is empty it appears to be simple and ordered, although it has infinite possible combinations of outcome. Yet as each players’ stones populate the board, these possibilities become more finite, yet the Go board become a representation of  a chaotic and complex system not unlike to our world. Aronofsky made a script that made all these weird element works and giving a lot of intensity to the characters and the world they lived in. There were repetitive lines narrated by Max, as he recount his childhood experiences and announce his activities for the day or his scientific findings. It allows us to understand his habits and routines. He stays under the sun looking at the rays filtered through layers of leaves, his beautiful neighbor offering help and concern that he promptly refuse, a little girl quiz him complicated equations and giggled when he gave the correct answer faster than calculator can churned them.  Yet he shut these outside elements, marking them as unwanted distractions, and hid himself away in isolation, to find a semblance of balance and order through mathematical means.

There’s a stark contrast to his more erratic and agitated behaviour later in the film as he was haunted by his own paranoia. The thing about Aronofsky films are how open it is to be interpreted by its viewers, and Pi is no different. As Max grew closer to understanding the secret of numerology patterns he believed in, we can see how greatly it affects him, and lead him to his ultimate decision to lobotomize himself as he learn the secrets that are too great for him. A secret that he realised he’s not supposed to be privy about. As we learn in the final scene, after he decides to relieve himself from that information, he was asked by the same little girl and found himself unable to produce an answer or perhaps unable to process. He relieved himself from his gift that define him, yet he found a bliss, that his character seemed to crave more.

Dark and intensely spellbinding, Pi (like most of Aronofsky films) might not be everyone’s cup of tea. His films are really more character-driven than plot driven. These characters always seemed so self-destructive psychological journey and made the entire film become somewhat depressingly dark, but they serve a fascinating studies of character that are exhilarating and successfully piqued my interest. Aronofsky film are always surreal and, more often than not, disturbing, these characteristics always featured prominently in all five of his feature films. There’s a connecting theme between his films, I think it’s the study of obsession. Different kind of obsessions of course, nevertheless it all allow us to see all his character succumbs to oblivion as they tried to reach the object of their desire. Weirdly enough, I always found that behind what seems to be a depressing conclusion to his story, each characters always found the bliss that they are looking for, even if the form of the bliss itself might be significantly altered.

Done in black and white film with only $60,000 budget, funded from $100 donations from friends and families, Pi is undeniably a great, albeit audacious, debut. There’s something very in-your-face harshness about Pi, a vision of young director that shows the promise and vision of a modern Auteur, that Aronofsky still has so much to offer. His narrative seems to be so heavy handed at times, but he eventually learned the art of subtlety and refinement in his much later films, especially the last two (The Wrestler and Black Swan). The film was shot by Matthew Libatique, a cinematographer that later become his frequent collaborators (for all his films, except The Wrestlers). Due to the constricting budget, the film was shot in using montages and intense short shots, a technique which was also used later in his sophomore feature Requiem of a Dream, but somehow contributes to the suspense factor of the film.  The black and white shots have a very high contrast and grainy, combined with the quick shots and editing, it made me feel unease and huge discomfort, perfect when combined with the intended mood that Aronofsky going for, allowing us to empathize with Max as he was victimized by his paranoia and given surrealistic nature of the story. The suspenseful nuance of Pi is enriched by the bold film score courtesy of Clint Mansell, who collaborated with Aronofsky on all of his films and whose career was launched from scoring this film.

Pi, a psychological thriller at heart, is an auspicious debut from Aronofsky and won him the directing award at 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Since then the director has been delivering remarkable subsequent films over the years. Aronofsky films always has a deep intricacy weaved into it through combination of visual semantics and narratives that sparks discussion and can be further explored by its viewers. How can i not be in love with his films?

I have never seen Aronofsky did a film with a wide commercial appeal before they are very segmented although they are always a critical success. The unusual theme and executions made his films attract only discerning sort of people. I wonder if his upcoming epic film, Noah, will finally have that commercial appeal especially considering the tentpole budget, which is the biggest one he ever got for any of his films. I really am looking forward for that!

 π Pi (1998)

GENRE Thriller 
DIRECTOR Darren Aronofsky | PRODUCER Darren Aronofsky, Eric Watson, Scott Vogel | WRITER Darren Aronofsky | MUSIC Clint Mansell | CINEMATOGRAPHER Matthew Libatique | EDITOR Oren Sarch | STUDIO Protozoa Pictures | DISTRIBUTOR Artisan Entertainment | COUNTRY United States | BUDGET $60,000 | RUNNING TIME 83 minutes | RATING R for language and disturbing image| RELEASE July 10, 1998
STARRING Sean Gulette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Samia Shoaib

Stills are partially from IMDb | Official Site

PS: You really should go to the official site (Designed by Sean Gulette himself) and go to Diary section to read Aronofsky log from January ’96 to December ’97 which documented his entire journey in making the film.


This was written as a part of Debuts Blogathon held by Three Rows Back and Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop. Check other blogger entries about debut features from the likes of Christopher Nolan, Terrence Malick, Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Bong Joon-Ho, Quentin Tarantion, etc. View the complete list here/here

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5 thoughts on “π Pi (1998)

    • It’s my pleasure Chris! The blogathon has been quite eye-opening for me especially since i rarely revisit debuts film of directors that i actually like (e.g: Kubrick!)

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