'ii,' the popular and praised film, plays Saturday night

by Lucy Goddard | 10/22/98 5:00am

"Pi" (1998) is a hauntingly beautiful twist of an intellectual and psychological art house film spun with a science-fiction edge. In the maddening, harsh and, at first glance, primitive film, there lies a remarkable and impressive beauty.

"Pi" seems beautiful in the way that Salvador Dali's art is. It has an eerie, arcane appeal, and here it manifests itself in a film that shows what happens when the "X-Files" meets counterculture.

The low-budget movie ($60,000) was shot in a deserted lighting factory in Brooklyn on 16-mm black and white film. It has been selling out theaters since the summer and has garnered the Directing Award for Drama at January's Sundance Film Festival for its 29-year-old writer and director, Harvard grad Darren Aronofsky.

Although it is a small, non-color indie film, "Clerks" it is not. And while it is about an angst-ridden and mathematically brilliant twenty-something, "Good Will Hunting" it certainly is not. "Pi" is a movie about the glory of numbers, and if Ben Affleck's Chuckie met Max, there would be no doubt that he would dub this boy "wicked smart."

But the world through protagonist Max Cohen's heavily-shadowed eyes is more frantic, excruciating, and surreal than South Boston ever could be.

  1. Mathematics is the language of nature; 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers; 3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.

The premise of "Pi" is based on the above logic. Cohen, Aronofsky's tormented, intellectually exceptional protagonist, is played by Aronofsky's Harvard classmate Sean Gullette.

The active plot of the film involves the pursuit of Cohen, who is believed to possess a coveted 216-digit number (which, incidentally, is not Pi) that gives both the key to the patterns of the New York Stock Exchange and the way to God which is believed by a Hasidic Jewish numerologist mystic to have been hidden in code in the Torah. Interestingly, "Cohen" means "priest" in Hebrew. And although it seems that everyone wants to play God, omniscience is dangerously unattainable.

Aronofsky does a magnificent job of trapping the audience in Cohen's dementia. He exploits the film's black and white format by shooting scenes with a striking level of contrast.

The resulting starkness seems to remove the picture from reality, creating a more immediately abstract experience.

Cohen's migraines, which seem related to the fine line he walks between insanity and genius, are made equally excruciating for the audience, which is also privy to his hallucinatory panics and consequent visions.

Aronofsky pieces action with incompatible sound and conveys a sense of the disconnection between Cohen's inner reality and the objective world.

For example, the sound of dripping water accompanies Cohen's frantic flight from a subway platform. In an equally nightmarish scene, Cohen's brain taunts him as it sits in his bathroom sink.

To portray Cohen's solitude, Aronofsky never lets him make an entrance into a room. Each of Cohen's interior scenes begins and ends with him present in the room. Continuously canted camera angles, a jarring beat (Aronofsky presents a score by Clint Mansell, formerly of the British band Pop Will Eat Itself) and the harsh contrasts onscreen keep the viewer clutched inside Max's anguished head.

The plot twists into a far-fetched, action-packed climax that, uniquely surreal though it is, detracts from the overall effect of the film and seems to be somewhat unrealistic and out of tune with the tone of the psychological thriller.

Overall, however, "Pi" delivers intellectual stimulation and the sort of esoteric connections that are refreshingly flattering. The small budget of the film is obvious but Aronofsky's ability more than makes up for it.

If there is one thing that "Pi" is not, it is mainstream. The viewer should be prepared for an odd and at times simultaneously beautiful and grotesque experience. It is well worth seeing the film that has been selling out art houses all over New York City.

As people catch on to the success of Aronofsky, it seems that his film concerning the irrational Pi may make him some rational cinematic friends. He has signed on to direct a film for New Line Cinema and another for Miramax's Dimension. His next film is a science-fiction and horror film about a U.S. submarine in World War II. The film, he told the L.A. Times, is "'Das Boot' meets 'The Shining.'"

After the cinematic expertise that Aronofsky displays in "Pi," one can only hope that he maintains his talent with these larger budget films.