Mental Illness in Film (a review of pi)
Mental Illness in Film
Mental Illness in Film, Darren Aronofsky’s "Π" (Pi)
Pi is the most vivid, and hence disturbing, portrayal of mental illness I have seen on film. It is rather different to distinguish fact and fiction in this story about an obsessive and paranoid mathematical genius Max Cohen. Max has written (presumably) a number of important mathematical papers about establishing patterns in large systems, especially the stock market, his concern at the beginning of the film.
His investigations seem the result of a person truly in love with numbers and patterns. Max’s obsession for patterns, however, leads to a number of delusions and paranoid relationships. During his work a company named Lancet Percy becomes interested in the practical applications of Max’s ideas. Max also meets a Hebrew numerologist during a random encounter at a bar. As Max continues with his work he begins to believe he has a 216 digit number whose properties will predict the pattern of all things and that the number is the true name of God. He begins to suffer delusional persecution, believing he is being hunted by Lancet Percy and sought after by Jews who want the name of God returned to them.
In addition to this paranoia, carrying this secret is a terrible burden, and seems to cause incurable headaches that have been “prescribed” so many medications that Max seems to be a drug addict. There are numerous shots of Max swallowing increasing numbers of pills and during the onset of a violent panic attack/hallucination he attempts to overdose on pain medication. His headache only seems to be cured when he believes to have taken a power drill into his temple, though he is depicted as fine shortly after.
The remarkable thing about this film is that it is impossible to tease out Max’s point of view (because Max is the center of the whole film) from what is actually going on. Movie going audiences are used to suspending disbelief and not doubt whether certain scenes actually take place. This is much like experiencing actual insanity in the sense that there’s no way to distinguish between what is real and what is delusional. This is the character of someone with severe and untreated schizophrenia.
Schizophrenics often have grandiose delusions that they have some sort of secret knowledge or can commune directly with some high entity, even God. What early on seem to be his passions of math and order are really disguises for delusional grandeur. Yet the film speaks with such elegance about math and nature that we can’t help but be sucked into Max’s world. It isn’t impossible, after all, for there to be a number which represents the true name of God. Max’s ideas have something of a seductive tone.
However, Max’s perceived self importance is at the cost of a torturous way of life. He has inexplicable attacks of whose nature is only hinted at with shots of Max’s shaking hands. He has violent hallucinations in which he attacks his own brain. He has black outs where he sees bright lights and then wakes up with nosebleeds. And his headaches are relentless. Barring the Passion of Christ I have never seen a character of such greatness fall to such terrible depths as Max.
It is hard to make sense of the ending. Max’s one friend, his old professor, dies of a stroke at the end of the movie. Max holds the belief that his teacher had discovered the number as well, as is suggested by the props but I don’t buy it. After all, Max supposedly drills into his right temple with a power drill only to remain perfectly healthy in the last scene. This scene features Max at a park staring at the leaves of the trees from a park bench. His smile (probably the only one in the movie) seems to suggest feeling the order of nature is preferable to a life where order must be sought incessantly at whatever cost to the seeker. Perhaps the movie’s opening line is most fitting, “When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six I did.” Max it seems, has accepted the limits of his intellect and that staring into the sun, a metaphor for his madness, brings not knowledge but blindness.