Tonight the country will come together, gathered around televisions in living rooms across the states, to celebrate cinema. I’ve long thought about the significance of this annual ritual, and asked questions about what it is that draws us to the movies. This year’s crop of movies features a diverse range of auteurs, directors with vision and craft, that see the movies as a kind of vehicle for salvation. Greta Gerwig, the writer and director of Lady Bird, sets up her protagonist to seek escape from Sacramento, CA, which for her functions as a kind of purgatory. Martin McDonagh, writer-director of the excellent Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, sets up his story as a kind of riff off of midcentury Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find. There are so many good movies this year that an essay would be warranted for each, but there is one movie that I think perhaps encapsulates for me the essence of what it is that draws us to the cinema over and over. This process involves the intersection between art and practical life, between day−to−day existence and reflection on the meaning of that existence. Over the years of studying and partaking in the filmic process, I’ve seen directors of various religious backgrounds treat the cinema like a religion. I’ve written about the incredible story of grace and justice in The Revenant, the quintessentially religious and spiritual elements in the films of Martin Scorsese, and the substitution of symbolic spiritual beings in the form of aliens by Steven Spielberg. In that vein, I think this year offers a perfect example of what this process looks like when observing the work of Guillermo del Toro in The Shape of Water. While I will try not to spoil the ending for you, be warned that there maybe some spoilers in what follows.
In a talk about his artistic influences, and the origin of his horror-fantasy style, del Toro credits images and influences from the Mexican Catholic Church, which he calls “a mixture of virtue and violence:” a gothic Church in Guadalajara, an anatomically correct crucifix statue, complete with exposed bone and bruises. But there exists a tension within religion, running all the way back through the traditions and histories to the scriptures themselves, between the ugly, shocking and scandal-like nature of the stories and events of history and the desire to sanitize, sundayschoolize (my term) and domesticate that which is incredibly dangerous and wild. del Toro puts it this way (and, not without irony, I apologize for the vulgarity):
“There was a Christ in my church with an exposed bone fracture, and it was kind of green and purple, but his face looked like he was coming. And then they said, ‘The body of Christ,’ and I said, ‘No thank you.’
Exactly… if the cross is a scandal (as is pointed out over and over in the Bible), then how can you portray Christ as somehow enjoying the torture? How can you do justice to the beauty of the event (symbolic and theological beauty if not aesthetic) while also portraying the grim reality? The point of fact is that there are horror elements in the gospel story, not to be glossed over without losing the essence of that story, indeed, without missing the point.
Guillermo del Toro, in embarking on his own spiritual journey, began to see a more honest artistic aesthetic of spirituality in the movie monsters of the mid 20th century.
“I started seeing in the monsters as a more sincere form of religion because the priests were not that great, but Frankenstein was great.” The metaphor of the misunderstood monster, the outsider, the Other, became a substitute for the Christfigure in del Toro’s work. But while he changed the symbols, he retained the essence of the biblical story. I (and others) have written much about how religious upbringing often colors the imagination of the artist, whether or not there is actual conscious belief or active religious practice. del Toro is perhaps a perfect example of this.
Most of the reviews of the movie seem to want to paint the narrative in terms of forbidden love, and how any love that is not self-love, that which is outward focusing and truly transformative, involves embracing the elements that are different about the other as well as those that are the same. This dynamic is set up right away as the opening sequence portrays the protagonist Elisa quite literally making love to herself, and slowly opening up to the love of another upon meeting a creature so fundamentally different from her, and us (living in the water, having gills and reptile-like features). While this thematic interpretation (forbidden love) is certainly valid, I think there is something far deeper going on. Ultimately, I think the film contains a larger philosophical comment on the nature of reality and humanity itself, in light of which there are social implications to be sure. But we shouldn’t be so quick to reduce the meaning of the film to some social or societal comment or other about our cultural moment. In other words, the themes found here, like the gospel story from which del Toro continues to draw inspiration, are far more universal and timeless. For me, the theme of the movie is about salvation, salvation through love and grace, and it has to do with the nature of faith and unbelief within the context of relationship.
Now, I could go into why I think the modern mind has lost these concepts in the intellectual sphere (thanks Enlightenment), and how a more relational approach to religion is exactly what we need in our society all across the board, but that’s a conversation for a longer writing. For now, I’ll simply point out how del Toro, as an artist, gets the nature of faith, salvation and belief right, and as a result, is able to bring to light a thick and robust picture of what love is.
The first point we have to grasp is that for del Toro, these monsters are substitutes for the Christfigures from his Catholic upbringing. He’s spoken about this many times, and he even uses two biblical stories to frame his own story: the story of Ruth (which is depicted as a story of love forbidden by religious tradition and ethnic prejudice), and Sampson (which is depicted a story about power and strength used to destroy one’s enemies). These two stories will come to symbolize the opposing worldviews set up between the protagonists and antagonists in the film.
So if we look at the film in this light, what do we see? There are characters in the film that have “faith” and those that are skeptics, those that lean into love and those that see nothing but power. The dynamics of these characters in relation to the monster mirror those of the characters in the gospel story.
The film (in its stylistic elements) is in conversation with the monster movies of the mid 20th century, in particular, the creature from the black lagoon, which is in conversation with the beauty and the beast archetype. Eliza (the beauty) cleans the floors in some kind of a military facility where the creature (the beast) is being studied as a possible cold war chess piece. The antagonist of the film and head of this military operation, Richard (played by Michael Shannon) is not a believer. Early on he says this about the creature:
“You may think that thing looks human… but we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?” In reply Zelda (the woman he is interrogating) replies, “I don’t know sir, I don’t know what the Lord looks like.”
Richard goes on to explain that the Lord probably looks something like him. This is an important point. The unbeliever puts himself in the place of God. The parallel here of course is that in the gospel story Christ is born in a stable, not to a king, or anyone important, in the backwater town of Bethlehem (not Jerusalem or Rome). In that story, nobody knows what the Lord looks like except those who have encounters with him. It’s always the unbelievers who torture the Christ-figure. They are threatened by the Other or want to use the Other for power. Richard puts the creature in chains and zaps him with a cattle prod. When his boss shows up, they discuss how he might give them an edge against the soviets. During this scene they have this exchange:
Richard: “You know the natives in the Amazon worshipped him as a god.”
General Hoyt: “Doesn’t look like much of a god now, does he?”
Richard: “Well they were primitive, sir.”
The parallel here is when Jesus is in chains in front of Pilate. Pilate basically says, “so YOU are the king of the Jews??” He’s looking at the Jewish religion as a primitive religion and culture and doing what he has to as a Roman to get rid of the threat. He’s looking at Christ through the lens of power, as the army looks at the creature in the movie. During this same scene, Robert (the doctor/scientist) pleads with the general no to kill the creature, to which General Hoyt replies, “At the end of the day, it is my damn decision.” Again, this is the act of putting oneself in the position of highest authority. HE and he alone is the one in charge of damning and pardoning.
While all of this is going on, Elisa is seeing the creature differently. She’s having communion (sharing eggs) and listening to music and dancing around the creatures water-cage, a Mary Magdalene archetype who symbolically breaks the bottle of expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus, or a Ruth, who pursues her love in spite of the obstacles. At one point, she explains (in sign language since she is mute) to her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, a character equally as lonely and misunderstood as Elisa) what she sees in the creature:
Elisa: “What am I? I move my mouth like him. I make no sound like him. What does that make me? All that I am, all that I’ve ever been, brought me here to him. When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am. He’s happy to see me, every time, every day. Now I can either save him or let him die.”
Ironically, it is Eliza who needs saving and who ultimately is saved by the Other. This of course is an oft repeated motif in the gospel of John, that of swapping characters. Pilate thinks he’s putting Jesus on trial, but it’s actually the opposite. Peter thinks he’s fighting for Christ in Gethsemane but it’s actually the opposite.
“… all that I am, all that I’ve ever been, brought me here to him.” That’s faith. An encounter followed by a relationship, followed by trust and a sense of destiny. Giles, after being healed and experiencing new hair growth on his head where the creature had touched him, excitedly joins Eliza in her faith.
Giles: “I’m toweling my hair, MY hair! Look at my arm, the wound where he touched me, it’s like it was never there! You said that he was worshipped like a god, now is he a god? I don’t know if he’s a god, I don’t know, but we have to keep him around a while, a little while.”
Later in the movie, Richard (the antagonist) talks about faith in a very different way as he pleads his case to his boss, Genera Hoyt.
Richard: “Sir, a man is faithful, loyal efficient all his life… and he has certain expectations in return, and the he fails once, only once. What does that make him, a failure? When is a man done sir, proving himself? A good man, a decent man?”
General Hoyt: “A man has the decency not to F** up, that’s one thing. That’s real decent of him. But the other kind of decency doesn’t really matter… 36 hours from now this entire episode will be over and so will you. Our universe will have a hole in it with your outline and you will have moved on to an alternate universe, a universe of shit, you will be lost to civilization and you will be unborn, unmade, and undone. So go get some real decency son, and unf** this mess.”
Here the alternate “religion” or the worldview of the antagonist is revealed. While Eliza and Giles are headed for healing, new life, and being baptized and reborn, Richard is headed for an alternate universe of shit. For Genral Hoyt (and by extension, Richard himself), there is nothing higher than utility, power relations and results (incidentally, this is what post enlightenment philosophy reduced the spiritual and moral realms to, a sentiment that I see del Toro dismantling in his art). Richard and General Hoyt seem to live in a closed universe, a mindset that is incapable of love insofar as love, by definition is an expansion of one’s own world, an adventure in going beyond one’s self to explore that which is different and beyond.
In the gospel stories, the characters that exhibit faith do so in response to magical encounters with Christ. The blind man is healed and when questioned (and pressured to downplay the significance of Jesus) he simply explains what happened, “all I know is that I was blind and now I see.” In the process of gathering disciples, each encounter is treated like this. Jesus arrives, does something to show he’s different and magical, and the disciples and eventual followers respond. Those that want to hang on to their power, or the religious racket that they have been running, are the ones who, instead are threatened by Jesus’ presence and actions. Ultimately, this is the part of humanity that engages in (literal and symbolic) crucifixion.
In the very next scene Eliza has a metaphorical, “I was blind but now I see” moment. Having been mute the entire film, she begins hesitantly speaking for the first time “you’ll never know how much… I love you” in a beautiful black and white fantasy sequence they dance as she sings, and it becomes clear that the creature has performed another miracle. It’s quite a juxtaposition: on the one hand a world of shit where the highest value possible is power and men setting themselves up as gods, and a world where magic and love is possible.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I could go on and on with the parallels. It’s really quite amazing. But I think the clear lesson from the film is the following: love fundamentally involves a risk, a leap of faith and an expansion of one’s self, but this is all done in response to that which we experience. If del Toro is right, there is a principle of love built into the fabric of the universe into which we can let ourselves fall. Indeed, if we want to live into our true humanity, we must let ourselves fall, and step out into the embrace of the other. Perhaps the best articulation of this is a conversation between Eliza and Giles. In pushing back against Eliza’s plan to break the creature out of his torturous confinement, Giles protests that, “that thing isn’t even human,” to which Eliza responds, “If we do nothing, neither are we.”
Ultimately, Eliza is baptized and moves into new life with the creature, who once again exhibits a magic that goes beyond our understanding. The scary part of this whole thing is that, like Eliza, we don’t know for sure if our trust in the other will indeed lead to new life. We don’t know if the magic is real. All we have to go off of are the little miracles, the clues and glimpses we encounter along the way. del Toro hopes we hear this gospel in his art. In talking about his encounter with cinema he puts it this way:
“When I saw Karloff at the threshold, I was Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, and my main labor is evangelical.”