Jul 29, 1998 at 12:00 am

In one of his hallucinatory, migraine-induced visions, Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) pokes a ballpoint pen into a throbbing human brain. The tension expressed in that moment -- where a utilitarian utensil breaks through the protective layer and touches the infinite, mysterious expanses of the mind -- ideally encapsulates the duality at work in this heady thriller. Max Cohen is a mathematician who looks beyond numbers to see the unifying threads of the world. He posits his theory this way: "One: Mathematics is the language of nature. Two: Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. Three: If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature."

But in Pi , the debut film from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (who won the director's prize at Sundance this year), Max is not exactly the Ivory Tower, academic type. He's a paranoid loner whose tiny, shabby apartment in New York City's Chinatown is filled by a jury-rigged supercomputer he calls Euclid. Max seems to barely exist in an everyday, corporeal sense. His body, often wracked by seizures, is only a barely acknowledged receptacle for his brain.

Obsessed with cracking the secret language of mathematics, Max is working on finding the underlying patterns of the stock market, which keeps him under the watchful eye of Wall Street power brokers. But a seemingly chance meeting with an extremely chatty and persistent Hasidic man (Ben Shenkman) leads Max to examine the more mystical aspects of his numbers theory.

Feeling the pressure of the opposing forces of commerce and faith, Max turns to his former mentor, Sol (Mark Margolis), a prominent mathematician who retired after surviving a stroke. But even Sol can't quite understand Max's goal: pure theory that's unencumbered by the compromises and constraints of human morality and mortality.

While Max lives in his head, Pi is a lively and vigorous film. Shot in expressionistic black and white, and featuring a perfectly suited electronica score by Clint Mansell (Pop Will Eat Itself), this is an inventive, intellectual sci-fi adventure. Pi also serves as an example of art generated by millennial fusion. It combines the ancient forms of Hebrew text and Arabic numerals with the reality of our postindustrial, computer-wired, urban world, and uses them both to touch on something at the core of humanity.

Max is on a spiritual journey and is using the hard currency of mathematics to get there. He is trying to discern the overriding logic of a seemingly chaotic world and, in the process, perhaps see God's face in the numbers.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].