Pi (1998) is a daring low-budget psychological thriller written and directed by Darren Aronofsky . Max Cohen, a mathematical genius plagued with monumental headaches, lives locked in a small apartment in New York. The apartment is filled with a supercomputer (“Euclid”) he has built himself. Max (played by Sean Gullette) believes that the universe can be described with a single mathematical formula, if only he is clever and persistent enough to discern the formula.
Initially, Max examines the patterns in the stock market, and has enough success using his program to predict fluctuations there that he comes to the attention of a group of sinister, well-heeled Wall Street denizens. Later, a group of Hasidic Jews in search of the Name of God convince him to look at Torah as a “string of numbers.” Both groups view Max as a means to an end.
Meanwhile, Max’s headaches and his internal demons rage. Aronofsky uses an arsenal of electronic music, oddball film techniques, and high-contrast black and white photography to convey the wonder and misery of Max’s world.
As the British Channel 4 reviewer writes, the film is “disturbing, exhilarating, and sure to send anyone of conservative temperament scuttling from the room.” Definitely NOT a film for children.
Commentary (contains Spoilers)
The search for God has been a subject of art since the beginning of art. This is a film about a man who uses his sacred language (mathematics) to try to approach the Divine Meaning behind Creation. It is a Jewish film for our purposes here for three reasons: (1) Max Cohen is an explicitly Jewish main character (2) Max is both protected and threatened by a group of Hasidic Jews seeking to identify the Name of the Jewish God with gematria, and (3) the conclusion of the film is actually quite Jewish (although I’m interested in knowing if you think so, too.)
Max is a seeker after truth who has a teacher but no real friends. The struggle with his teacher is interrupted in the middle of the film; Max is left to find his own way alone, pursued by people who want what he might find. Max seeks what Paul Tillich, a Christian theologian, called the Ultimate Ground of Being: a mathematical or numerical key to Everything. The two groups who pursue him are also seeking access to their gods: an unspecified Wall Street firm seeks Money (and Power) and a group of Hasidic Jews seek the Power of the Name of God. Max’s pursuit seems to be purer: he is driven to seek the key, but we never have any sense of what he will do with it. He is frantically attracted to it, and all of his life has been subsumed to that pursuit.
In the end, Max fails to capture the knowledge he seeks, and the end of the film was described as “disappointing” by many critics. (What did they think, that the filmmaker had the Name of God and was going to give it to us?) I was initially let down, too, but later began to wonder about it.
Max finally is overwhelmed by the pain and his madness, and takes a power drill to his own skull. After that scene, the next we see is Max in the park, looking at the patterns in the trees, looking relaxed and happy. A little girl comes by and asks him to solve a bit of arithmetic: he declines, and smiles.
I am reminded of the tale of the four rabbis in Chagigah 14b (Babylonian Talmud.)
It is the cryptic story of four Sages who “entered pardes”. The Four sages were: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha Ben Abuyah, and Akiba ben Joseph. Exactly what “entering pardes” means is a mystery. Theories include that it is: mystical ascent, or esoteric interpretations of the Torah, or Paradise. Whatever the reality behind the event, it was catastrophic for three of the rabbis. Ben Azzai “looked and died.” Ben Zoma “looked and lost his senses.” Ben Abuyah “cut the root,” and became known only as Acher, while Akiba alone emerged whole.
One interpretation of the story is that Ben Azzai was so captivated by what he saw he could not give it up and refused to return to his body. Ben Zoma became so immersed in the mysteries he had seen that he ceased to be able to function in life. Ben Abuyah saw Metatron, an angel. Thinking he had seen another deity besides God, he declared “there are two powers in heaven” (he became a Gnostic) and turned against the Torah. Only Akiba, the superb scholar, was able to peek into this reality and remain unscathed.
1. What does seeking after the True Name of God have to do with Judaism? Is it the same as, or different from, seeking the Truth?
2. What did you think of the depiction of the Hasids in this film?
3. Did Max fail, or did he succeed? How did you feel about the ending? What does it say about efforts to understand the Truth behind the Universe?