Mathematics is a difficult topic to film. Ron Howard’s biopic of brainiac John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (2001), was hampered in its attempt to make maths visually interesting by the boring nature of maths itself. Scott Hicks easily managed to make mad genius attractive in Shine (1996) primarily because a mad genius pianist is recognisably brilliant, even to those who don’t play the piano. A mad genius mathematician, on the other hand, looks very similar (to the uninitiated naked eye) to a mediocre mathematician, a merely good one, or indeed a rotten one. All the filmmaker can do is surround his genius with intelligent-looking people whose mouths occasionally drop open in wonder when confronted by a manically scribbled equation (used also in Gus Van Sant’s 1997 Good Will Hunting), or resort to tricks like getting him to write on windows, an image nicked from Howard by David Fincher in a desperate attempt to make the writing of computer code look cinematically interesting in The Social Network (2010).
Darren Aronofsky‘s debut, Pi (1998), is a stumbling success in conveying mathematics as a serious subject matter primarily because the maths is not as important as all that. All of Aronofsky’s films are about obsessive madness. Be it drug addiction, wrestling, scientific research or, most recently, ballet, his films all follow the trajectory of characters tearing themselves apart to get at their obsession, literally tearing themselves apart in most cases: the arm in Requiem for a Dream (2000), the heart in The Wrestler (2008), the fingernails and toenails of Black Swan (2010) and finally, where it all began, the brain in Pi. Shot in a granular black and white and with a close-up intensity that feels like an invasion of personal space, Aronofsky’s film tells the story of mad genius Max (played by Sean Gullette), who shuffles from apartment to subway station and back again, suffers intermittent debilitating attacks and becomes embroiled in two conspiracies, one involving a shady Wall Street operation and the other a bunch of Hasidic Jews searching for a numerical answer to the Torah. Max is given succour and advice by a friendly neighbour (Samia Shoaib) and a wise old mentor called Sol (Mark Margolis), who has himself given up being an obsessive genius to devote himself to dishing out wisdom to Max, games of Go and feeding his fish.
Max’s explanations of what he’s looking for have a demented Johnny Ball feel, as Aronofsky supplies illustrations and Clint Mansell pounds away with a soundtrack that feels a bit too cool for the main character. The two forces that approach and seek to exploit Max, the stock market thugs, representing the material, and the frankly mad Jews, representing the mystical, are likewise a threat to the rationalist Max. They are trying to get their hands on the 216-digit number that is the film’s MacGuffin. It is Sol who argues the most coherently that once you focus on a number you will see it everywhere as you filter out all that doesn’t fit in. Sol is the voice of sanity and rational retreat. His voice is, in fact, all too sane, showing Max up for the humourless, dour nerd he really is.
Stylistically, there’s a lot of Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977) in here, but, as with Black Swan, Polanski is the main influence, and especially the claustrophobic madness of Repulsion (1965). In the end, we are left wondering how much of the film is real and how much happens in Max’s own head. The forces conniving against him seem more credible, not only as paranoid illusions, but also as projections of Max’s inflated sense of his own importance.
Ultimately, things don’t quite add up.