As the film opens, we learn that Max lives in New York City, and spends most of his waking hours holed away in his apartment while running computer simulations of the financial world. As Max narrates his story, we begin to sense that this is a man who is singularly committed to making sense of the world. Unfortunately, Max is also afflicted with a severe mental illness which causes him hallucinations and ear-splitting screeches, as is conveyed with a number of very effectively shot scenes of mental anguish.
The story begins to flesh itself out as we learn that some shady Wall-Street characters are on to Max's research, and will stop at nothing to get a piece of his findings. Max must also fend with a group of urban Jewish mystics, who seem mostly benign but seek to pick his brain in the hope of unlocking the secrets of God and the universe.
As the film builds, we find ourselves drawn into Max's shadowy and unpredictable world. An accompanying techno-modernist soundtrack lends a moody and frenetic atmosphere to the film, which is actually shot in black and white. While some may view this as gimmicky, this technique suits the film very well, as the visual images acquire an unsettling starkness which is in keeping with the overall atmosphere. The director's use of quick cuts and jolting camera work is also effective, as it helps the film acquire an uncomfortable and unpredictable presence.
Performance-wise, the film is almost flawless. Sol (Mark Margolis), Max's older mathematical mentor, provides a voice of normalcy and reason to the sometimes overwhelming feel of the film. Lenny (Ben Shenkman), Max's Jewish-mystic friend, comes across as likeable but driven by ulterior motives, while Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart) - head of the shady Wall-Street corporation interested in Max's research - is positively chilling.
Make no mistake - this is an emotionally jarring film. But it is rare to see such emotional and stylistic artistry, even in independent films. Indeed, Pi is a masterwork of compelling narrative, memorable performances, and fascinating philosophy.
(c) 2004, Cyrus Banerjee
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