One for the ages

The number pi and its mysteries, unrevealed.

When you think of a really good mystery, you think of Agatha Christie or P.D. James, and you assume that all its dark secrets will be revealed in the end. But in earlier centuries, mysteries were truly esoteric—everyone simply understood them to be unknowable. Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Pi, is a fascinating attempt at building a new myth for our age, one that asks such unanswerables as “What can be known?” “What happens as we attempt to grasp the infinite?”


directed by Darren Aronofsky

starring Sean Gullette

now playing at Broadway Market

As the author of The Joy of Pi and a number of computer books, I could spell out exactly why the details of the movie are silly—like the way the lead character plugs in a “super” microchip to his computer as though he were plugging in an electrical cord—but that totally misses the film’s importance. Like most myths, you shouldn’t take the film’s plot (which includes Hassidic rabbis, Wall Street thugs, and a host of hallucinations) or its imperfect math and science too literally. Instead, focus on the film’s central theme: our longing for simple answers in an infinitely complex world.

Aronofsky’s lead character, a mathematician named Max (Sean Gullette), is obsessed by his belief that nature is made of patterns that can be calculated and understood. But as he gets closer to resolving the big mysteries (in his case, predicting the stock market), he first melts down his computer and then—like Icarus flying too close to the sun—he melts down his own brain.

Ultimately, the movie hardly touches on the subject of the number pi—that strange, infinitely long number that almost everyone can still dredge up from high school math classes: 3.1415926…. Rather, the film’s title stems from a deeply disconcerting truth about geometry: We cannot ever truly measure the circumference or the area of a circle because we cannot ever truly know the value of pi. What’s more, there doesn’t appear to be any pattern to the digits of pi, frustrating every analysis of this fundamental number.

Yet Max refuses to believe that his mystery (or any mystery, for that matter) is unsolvable. He, like many of us, feels intuitively that answers will come if we only try harder or think smarter. The film becomes increasingly disturbed and disturbing as it delves deeper into the frustrating possibility that no matter what we do, there still remain myriad mysteries that will always be beyond us.

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