Sean Gullette in Pi (1998)


(director/writer: Darren Aronofsky; cinematographer: Matthew J. Libatique; editor: Oren Sarch; cast: Sean Gullette (Max Cohen), Mark Margolis (Sol Robeson), Ben Shenkman (Lenny Meyer), Pamela Hart (Marcy Dawson), Stephen Pearlman (Rabbi Cohen), Samia Shoaib (Devi); Runtime: 84; Artisan Entertainment; 1998)

“This is a film that gives off a rich aroma of intellectual pursuit, but cannot digest the full intellectual and mystical meal it has cooked.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Pi”is an earnestly written and directed low-budget black & white shot sci-fi film by Darren Aronofsky that is made for intellectuals, but shows them in a depressing light. It is about a mathematically gifted intellectual (Gullette) and his obsession as a computer freak with predicting the exact performance of every stock; and, later on, when he meets an Hasidic numerologist (Shenkman), he is intrigued to find out if a string of 216 digits is the mystery number that will reveal God’s true name. This curious story also concerns the price he must pay for his relentless pursuit of knowledge: he shuns people and lives stoically and suffers from poor mental and physical health. His severe anxiety attacks bring on frightening illusionary visions that require him to ply himself with an assortment of drugs. The attacks he gets on the NYC subway are particularly horrifying; such as, imagining that he is being followed and then seeing a pulsating brain on the subway platform.

Pi is the mathematical symbol for the ratio of the circumference of a circle (3.14). Its number has served the public well for generations. But our hero is rebellious of this symbol’s status quo in society. For him, the mystery of numbers are the most important thing in his life; it is more important than being happy. Gullette’s life is wrapped around three principles: 1) math being the language of nature. 2) all things can be understood through numbers. 3) there are patterns in nature.

Gullette’s life comes apart when evil Wall Street brokers wish to use his knowledge for their profit and the Hasidim wish to use his knowledge to access God. He terms himself a Jew who doesn’t believe in religion. He considers his search as pure science, and has no interest in making a profit off his knowledge or in knowing God.

His mentor and former professor at Columbia (Margolis), share a mutual interest in such data derived from numbers. They play Go to relax and while playing discuss the problems they run into in their work. After Gullette’s computer crashes and he loses his valuable data on the numbers he is working on, the professor tries unsuccessfully to warn him of the dangers of getting too absorbed in his work, so much so that he reaches a point where he can’t see the obvious. Margolis futilely shouts out to him as he is leaving that he should go home and relax, that he thinks too much; he should learn how to act more intuitively.

The flaw in this intellectual characterization of Gullette, is that the director chooses to end Gullette’s vision and search by saying it is not so bad that he took out a piece of his brain: now he can experience the ordinary things of life. Aronofsky did not take a stand to point out what he clearly meant by that; that is, unless he believes it is better to be self-satisfied and rational than someone who goes all the way in his pursuit of genius. What is clear, is that Aronofsky blames science just as much as he does capitalism and religion for the way the world is in turmoil.

This is Aronofsky’s first feature, something he won best director for at the Sundance Film Festival. It is good to see that a film that is so cerebral and difficult to make can so popularly be received by selected audiences and most critics. But this being said, the film’s popularity still scares me: I think it is popular for the wrong reason. This film, in retrospect, might be viewed as an anti-intellectual film since it emphasizes that Gullette is more appealing when he is not completely absorbed in his intellectual pursuit. Just as the film’s merits are easy to praise, the film’s flaws are also easy to find fault with. Aronofsky has his protagonist retreating sophomoric-ally into passivity, in lieu of his quest. Though he does appear as a colorful character, it does not make him a more appealing one. This flaw should not be overlooked, it so seriously challenges the film’s main character from establishing who he is and from our understanding of what is really being said about intellectuals. I think it should have been emphasized that it is irrelevant that the protagonist is an intellectual, because he could be any personality type and that would not alter the fact that he was going through a nervous breakdown; and, in essence, that is what has happened to Gullette.

Gullette happens to be just marvelous in this very complex role, a role that he not only looks like he fits the part but is perfect in acting the part of someone who is strangely brilliant. This is a film that gives off a rich aroma of intellectual pursuit, but cannot digest the full intellectual and mystical meal it has cooked.