In The Vision of Guillermo Del Toro’s Magical Realism and Universal Symbolism
My relationship with literature long before I knew how to read, with my mother taking at least half an hour of her night before my bedtime to read me stories. There was never a single night lacking the sound of turning pages and her raspy yet sweet voice; no matter how tired or sad she was, my mother would knock on my door exacly at nine thirthy, and we would spend our little quality time together until I fell asleep in her arms. And if there’s one reason that I became an avid reader, a maybe-future writer, a literature student: it is because of her, and her efforts.
This, of course, also meant that as I grew older and older, our libraries merged into one, too. Of course, there wwere my populist fantasy series — looking at you Harry Potter and Twilight — , which I would read even on my way to home from school while walking, and there were her thick, old looking books from Turkish novelists. Somewhere in the middle, just after I became a highschool student and started one of the hardest periods of my teenage years, I started picking up books from her side of the shelves. Then came Paul Coelho and Isabel Allende, Camus and Christie, Le Guin and Kafka, but most important of them all, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He was the favorite writer of my mother, and he quickly became mine too. His writing style, even when translated, had the power to carry me from my reality to another one; one that still seemed so close yet so far away, a purgatory between reality and dream. As I learned later later, this was called magical realism, a very popular type of fiction from Latin American literature that was known for its merging of fantasy elements with otherwise “normal” settings.
And you know what other piece of fiction had the power of carrying me from my reality to another one, so close yet so far away, as if it was a labyrinth hidden in my backyard, unseen? It was, pun intended, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a movie I have watched on television when I was just ten, and continued watch over and over again throughout years. During my first time watching it, I had little to no knowledge about neither filmmaking nor narrative-building as a little kid who was just learning about multiplying and dividing numbers; and my appreciation of the things that I was watching was based on the fact that whether or not they were pretty looking. And among others, Pan’s Labyrinth was quickly able to show itself as a shining star, a fairytale if you will: even if dark, nerve-wrecking and sometimes scary, still a fairytale of a little girl finding hope and power in legends, but most significantly in herself, all the same.
Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno in its original language, which translates directly as “The Labyrinth of the Faun” rather than the singular name of Ancient Greek deity “Pan”) wasn’t Mexican-born director’s first movie. It was actually his fifth, coming after Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy — but for many movie-goers, it served as his international and critical breakthrough. It also wasn’t his first movie that was set during the authoritarian rule of military dictator Francisco Franco and under the context of Spanish Civil War, only coming second to his earlier acclaimed work of 2001, The Devil’s Backbone.
Del Toro’s script was set in the Spain of 1944, and followed the main character Ofelia, who had just moved into the post of her growingly sick mother Carmen’s new husband, Vidal, who was a Falangist captain that had the mission of hunting down those who were opposing to the Francoist regime in the region. There, she would find an abadoned labyrinth after being lead to there by a mysterious faun that reclaimed her as a lost princess who has to pass three tests in order to become immortal. The film’s quick gain of popularity and claim of its throne as an essential piece of twenty-first century filmmaking was especially interesting when the fact that it had basically no star power to back it up, or that Del Toro was virtually a “newbie” in the industry when it came to numbers.
Now, Pan’s Labyrinth is known as the signature outing of the Mexican director’s style, and also the movie that made the famous horror novelist Stephen King squirm mightily during its Pale Man sequence at a screening in New England, per Del Toro’s own words: “It was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
It is actually quite hard to find a visible connection between Del Toro and Marquez outside of a an answer the director gave to a fan’s question about his favorite book from magical realism genre on Twitter in 2015; and the fact that they are both from the lands of Latin America, former from Guadalajara, Mexico and the latter, Aracataca, Colombia. They were born four decades apart, but brought together by a fiction style that put them among the best in their respective areas.
In a profile he wrote for The New Yorker about Del Toro titled “Show The Monster”, writer Daniel Zalewski mentioned that the director was a child misfit, who liked to troll the city sewers and dissolve slugs with salt. Also a teasingly morbid soul, he had “a plush werewolf that he sewed together with the help of a great-aunt”; a collection of insects and snakes and rats and even a crow, comic books and action figures and drawings of himself; a sister that he would use makeup to turn into a vampire-bitten girl, an ametour poet who read tarot cards for a mother and a businessman who would later win lottery and build a Chrysler-dealership empire with it for a father. But most importantly, he had monsters in his mind. He became interested in filmmaking during high-school years, but never stopped sculpting fangs and devilish prosthetics: his experimentations with make-up and practical effects now earned him a prestige of being detail-oriented about every little aspect of his productions.
After finishing his college education at a Guadalajara film school named Centro de Investigación y Estudios Cinematográficos in 1983, his first move was to build the low-end special effects company Necropia and start working with local directors, mastering his technique and style in production design that would later carry him to the top many times in his filmmaking career. Ten years later, in 1993, his first self-directed and self-written movie Cronos, a grimdark humor filled outing about a mysterious device designed to provide its owner with eternal life resurfacing after four hundred years and leaving a trail of destruction in its path, went on to win Mercedes-Benz and Golden Camera awards for him during the same year’s Cannes Film Festival. Rotten Tomatoes reported a eighty-nine perfect of positive reviews and an average rating of 7.3 for the movie, with the critics’ consensus on it being that “Guillermo del Toro’s unique feature debut is not only gory and stylish, but also charming and intelligent”. The film’s plot synopsis on The Criterion Collection website describes it as a dark, visually rich, and emotionally captivating fantasy.
That depiction of being a “dark, visually rich, and emotionally captivating fantasy” later was revealed to be Del Toro’s main formula for filmmaking. It proved to be quite succesful, too, even in his less-acclaimed outings. His first film in Hollywood was one of those, a follow-up to the cinema’s interest in monsters, especially the flying ones, in movies back then and even if not very original or nearly as critically loved as some of his other works, it was still uniquely Del Toro at its heart: evident of his love for insects, clockworks, monsters, dark places, and unborn things. “A fetish,” he would say, when explaining his repeated use of those elements in his movies.
As Luís Azevedo mentions in his video essay for the Youtube channel Little White Lies, Del Toro uses these so-called fetishes and the objects that are in the center of them as tools for subtle yet sublime storytelling. Heroes and villains, and their many more complex variations, can be easily understood with how they have varying relationships with the objects they hold dear in his works. The director uses objects and the visual power they carry tell a wordless, yet powerful story, that can be usually summarized as one of longing in most cases. He chooses to define his characters by what they choose to define themselves with, not what other people see in them, creating personalities that feel deeper than they appear. Totems have power in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone not because of their material worth, but for their meaning for the beholder: even a coffee bean can be significant in the believer’s eyes, if they believe enough; rings on their fingers can be traumatizing mothers and ancient artifact can be the literal giver of eternal life — in the end, they are important to the story because they are important to their owners.
But symbols are not just for people, they are for concepts, too. For example, time is an undeniable conceptual point in many, maybe most importantly Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, and its symbolization of mortality of human struggle and mortality as human struggle corresponds with his affection towards the examination of us as short-living art works, waiting to be examined from a different angle. The difference between two characters obsessed with death and the legacy they will leave behind is made apparent by their own acceptance of their fragility and humanity. This is one of the many things that elevates his filmmaking: the way the narrates how the relationships we build with things around us, how we put meaning into them, and what we do with those meanings. It is such a mundane, yet undefined territory in human life, and Del Toro uses this blurriness to look at the simple and overused point of “sacrificing something” from a perspective of depth and complexity.
Del Toro continued both his commercial and critical success after his entrance to Hollywood, although for many, the two didn’t seem to exist together. During the earlier part of his career, the Mexican director was told be make one English, Hollywood based commercial piece, and then one, Spanish, more quote-on-quote personal one; existing on different platforms of artistry and craftsmanship. For him, though, this was a plain false sentiment. “I cannot pontificate about it, but by the time I’m done, I will have done one movie, and it’s all the movies I want,” he told to a Canadian English-language website, Screen Anarchy (then known as Twitch Film) during an interview he made with them in 2013.
“People say, you know, ‘I like your Spanish movies more than I like your English-language movies because they are not as personal’, and I go ‘Fuck, you’re wrong!’ Hellboy is as personal to me as Pan’s Labyrinth. They’re tonally different, and yes, of course you can like one more than the other — the other one may seem banal or whatever it is that you don’t like. But it really is part of the same movie. You make one movie. Hitchcock did one movie, all his life.”
Hitchcock was also the name that Del Toro had published a book-length essay about in 1983, and discussing the horror legend’s work The Birds, he would note that “in the terror genre, an artist, unbound by ‘reality,’ can create his purest reflection of the world — the cinematic equivalent of poetry,” and later, in an interview with Jian Ghomeshi of CBC’s Q, argue that Hitchcock has created an entire language of cinema that has had a lasting impact on the industry: a master at manipulation and emotional dissonance he was, the British director was able to “probe the dark corners of human psyche”, which the Mimic director found admirable.
“When you grow up as a child who sits in the corner of playground, watching other kids play, you understand the human condition at an early age and you understand that the world is not under your control. Then, you find a medium in which you can have 500 people elucidate the same reaction at the same time.”
Del Toro’s interest in horror wasn’t only born out of an artistic need, though, it was also a creation of his childhood and teenage traumas. While he was staying at her grandmother, the little kid would have night terrors that seemed all too real. “There was no difference between that and reality,” he recalls talking to Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway, “In my grandmother’s house, every now and then, the church bells nearby would chime late, either at midnight or 10 p.m. I would hear the bells going ding-dong, ding-dong, and there was a big armoire in my room, and out would come a hand and the face of a goat and the leg of a goat. It was horrible, so horrible.” His grandmother was also the first person to talk him of the Catholic teachings, of the original sin and the guilt we must feel of it. Those words still seem to be hanging behind the director, as shadows that guide him in his works. The religious motifs and the fictional presence of belief, a taste of his own relationship with those concepts, are present as the light of the day within many of his works.
In a much later chapter of his life, the director’s father was kidnapped just as his career was starting to take off: a real life horror story that ends with him leaving his native land behind and moving to United States with little to no financial support, starting it all over again. In his own words, Del Toro’s movies are reshapings of his childhood, “yoked to the violent dreamscape of his youth, a place where the real and the unreal intermingled.”
His most beautiful children were born out of those childhood dreams and nightmares, in an effort to create a connection between trauma and creativity. 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth had a fairytale’s beginning and ending, as narrated by Pan himself.
“A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a Princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped. Once outside, the brightness blinded her and erased every trace of the past from her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from. Her body suffered cold, sickness, and pain. Eventually, she died. However, her father, the King, always knew that the Princess’ soul would return, perhaps in another body, in another place, at another time. And he would wait for her, until he drew his last breath, until the world stopped turning…”
“And it is said that the Princess returned to her father’s kingdom. That she reigned there with justice and a kind heart for many centuries. That she was loved by her people. And that she left behind small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.”
Receiving an Oscar nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film, Pan’s Labyrinth is regarded as both a mainstream and an underground classic today, a stepping stone in the highbrow horror that Del Toro is making a name for himself for being a master at. Many consider him as the next big thing in horror after Hitchcock and his thrilling technique of building tension, but in a different way: Del Toro uses the light and the space to bleed the essence of fairytales into his horrific nightmares, and builds enchanted forests of hope and light hidden inside his beloved monsters. There is a quality unique to his work that lets him showcase human wickedness by putting them opposite of what is deemed ugly.
One might wonder, though, as I did when I watched the movie for the first three times, how can a fairytale end with a little girl dying. Fairytales are supposed to have happy endings, the culture has thought, in the end; happy endings were the princess gets crowned and a knight in his shining armor marries her. The hints are all there in Pan’s Labyrinth, and it is clear that Del Toro wants the audience to see his movie as a fairytale: Ofelia is dressed up in a fashion that recalls Lewis Carroll’s 1865 fantasy novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and clues of inspirations and themes from classics such as The Wizard Of Oz is there for those who know where to look. It is just that they are blended into a version of reality that most of the time portrays the darker turns of human history. Because of this, his magical realism works in a way unfound in others, creating a stark mirror image of both worls on the other, and of course, a story where little girls get their happy endings only after they die.
The term magical realism was coined by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier in 1949 as el realismo magical, in an effort to describe the Latin American literature’s combining of fantasy and every day fiction, long before Del Toro was born. Its first examples can be found even earlier, in works like Jonathan Swift’s 1726 dated Gulliver’s Travels. Garcia, who carried a leading role in the genre with his story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, tells that, “In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” His first encounter with one of its examples was from Prague, though, which was Franz Kafka’s classic work Metamorphosis.
“The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. It reads: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.”
For Del Toro, the horror genre seems to be the perfect way to combine the horror of real world and that of magic. In The Devil’s Backbone, the character Dr. Casares drinks from a jar which contains a fetus. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia is sent to the lair of the legendary creature known as the “Pale Man”, who is humanoid monster with no trace of mercy that eats children and keeps their clothes and shoes as trophies. One human and one not, they both mirror each other, and add to the already existing connection between two movies. This spiritual fellowship is also confirmed by the creator himself, who said, “But Pan’s Labyrinth is the sister movie [to The Devil’s Backbone], the female energy to that other one. I wanted to make it because fascism is definitely a male concern and a boy’s game, so I wanted to oppose that with an 11-year-old girl’s universe.”
He carries this energy, whether it is masculine or feminine, into his movies not just using script, too. Mentioning Kubrick’s work in The Shining to The New Yorker’s Daniel Zalewski, the modern mastermind talks of a specialty of horror that rises from the fact that it “excites a nonverbal part of us”. Especially when it is not there to just be scary but rather to also tell something and create a world, blood sucking monsters and terrifying gods; how they walk and how their skin looks; can provide a link deeper than many think there may be. Del Toro, most probably backed up by his past in production design, spends long sleepless nights working on the world he creates: a visual dictionary of his writings, if you will. The feminine power proclaimed in Pan’s Labyrinth does not simply exist on the script, it is present in the atmosphere, the music, the tunnels Ofelia travels through.
Of course, there is again a question of “why”, hidden in his style: why does Guillermo Del Toro chooses horror and fairytale as the two main bases in his merging of the worlds, the magic and real, again and again, when they stand on such opposite ends of the fictional platform? The visual language of both is to blame here, if you think you can blame them for presenting opportunities for quality filmmaking. Just as a vampire doesn’t need words to express his reason for being in the story, a unicorn doesn’t, too. The movies of the Mexican director doesn’t lack in literary department, yes, but their most powerful attempts at storytelling hides in their most silent moments; whether it is gothic inspired period pieces or just a simple love story. He is said to be never without a small sketchbook, where he writes and draws his stories together at once. He dreams of the costumes and make-up, plans camera angles and colour hues. It is almost like he composes a three-dimensional world and puts it in a limited pocket universe, and his movies are just a selected bit of taste he serves us from those realities.
The Mexican director is also notoriously known for his strict commitment to what he has imagined. This was a big problem for him to solve at the beginning of his career, specifically because the studio heads were much happier with the possibility of choosing a cheaper option for special effects. But even with a small budget (Pan’s Labyrinth had the budget of a mere $19 million, for instance) he would work a way to represent his dream world as he wanted: he would pay the expenses from his own salary, or use differing camera angles to make things look bigger than they were. Production was such an important part for his films that he was happy to spend half his income from Hellboy, and all from Pan’s Labyrinth in order to build the creatures he wanted.
It is apparent in his work and his conversations that Del Toro is interested in using monsters, and the eclectic world they bring with themselves, as a representation for real world problems. It doesn’t matter if they are a re-imagination of a beloved comic-book, or an entirely original idea, Del Toro finds a way to make every piece of his career his own. His designs and his creatures are his signature, just as other directors reveal their mojo through pacing and shadows.
There’s also a reason that the Mexican director’s magical realism often presents itself as a bridge between the real and the imagined. The fictional worlds he creates within his stories work like they do in the very under-appreciated 2007 movie by the Hungarian director and animator Gabor Csupo, Bridge to Terabithia: for both, what children dream of are not just their places to escape and hide, but they are also their places to learn and understand. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia finds her inner power running from the jaws of a famished ogre, and she finds comfort in the underground after her mother’s death. There’s something truly beautiful in the way Del Toro shines light on such sad stories of loss and pain, and how he uses his own sadness to find a way to light that spotlight.
The symbolization of trauma and remembrance is visible in the one of director’s later works, too. In Crimson Peak, Del Toro narrates the story of generational legacy, and how our past shapes our future. Edith Cushing and Lady Lucille Sharpe mirror each other in the way that they relate to the past: the embraces it and gains power from it, while the latter creates it and is defeated by it. Ghosts, which are usually the most out-there representations of past in all fictional platforms, here are not scary monsters who want to take you with them — they are guidance from the past. The fact that Lucille is finally able to see her brother’s ghost during her final confrontation with Edith, shows that her relationship with the past and the death has changed: she killed someone she cared for the first time, and that is even a bigger burden than their mother’s ring for her to carry around. As the siblings try to run away from their pasts, their failure is creating only more regret, sinking them deeper into the crimson snow.
Edith, on the other hand, has a greater sense of her past and her loss, and therefore is able to communicate with ghosts from a very young age. Her mother is one of them, too. Her acceptance of the past is the reason she is able to sail into the future, a plot point resembling the thematic fight between mortality and remembrance that is center to many other works of Del Toro.
Crimson Peak might also be seen as the point in the director’s filmography that he starts making amends with the past, at least on an artistic sense. This is not to say that he was a Lucille Sharpe before this movie, but Peak may be his clearest attempt at providing a message for the viewer when it comes to personal history: don’t try to let go of the past if it is just for the sake of running away it, embrace it. This clarity of course comes along with the simplicity, and that is a quality different that is not present in his earlier works. Del Toro works best when his stories are ambiguous and a little undermined, so it is not surprising that this movie is not heralded as his best work; but what it does, it does great. With a sizable budget and eye-catching quality of set design and production, it is Del Toro’s first movie in English language that can be called as “highbrow”, and a gateway into one of director’s finest movies to come.
There looks to be a point in human life where one becomes an adult, or at least it is told so: a point where you have to leave your childhood dreams and fears behind. There are now bigger, more urgent problems across you: problems that are different than what kind of candy you’d like to eat as a treat. There are politics and economy, racism and sexism, war and migration. And somewhere during that transition between worrying about the candy and the social marginalization, we usually forget the simple questions of life, and the simple complexities they carry. Not for Del Toro, though, as the Mexican director believes that the border between the concepts of childhood and adulthood shouldn’t be so thick, at least not when it comes to internal struggles. Our insecurities and dark corners are still with us, even when we grow big and strong, and then grow old and weak. For him, at least based on his movies, the real “adulthood” comes with acceptance, of yourself and of others.
The thursday I had the chance of watching Shape of Water, Del Toro’s latest cinematic work to grace our screens, was an extremely stressful one. I remember running into the theatre at the last minute, finding my very uncomfortable seat, and then letting myself dive deep into the neon-coloured, dance-filled imagination of Elisa Esposito, the leading lady of the movie. Much like how another one of Much Ado’s writers, Dilara Elbir, declared in her piece for the “Films That Made Us Happy” series, the movie became an imminent best of the year for me too. It was sweet and sour, happy and sad at the same time, a glory-filled moment of triumph and hope that is only seconded by the story of Pan’s Labyrinth.
Shape of Water is not the first movie Del Toro has done after Crimson Peak, but it can be easily said that it is the first one that feels like it can be categorized as an arthouse work. Coming after the vampire focused TV series The Strain, which he is credited as a creator of, and Pacific Rim, a grand spectacle of action and apocalypse, Shape of Water is very different than Pan’s Labyrinth, or any of Del Toro’s other works, on that matter. It is devoid of the elements supernatural horror that the director is so keen on using in his stories. The one similarity between two great work is that they are both aware that they are fairytales, and told is such format from the beginning to the end. Here’s what the Shape of Water ends with:
“If I told you about her, what would I say? That they lived happily ever after? I believe they did. That they were in love? That they remained in love? I’m sure that’s true. But when I think of her — of Elisa — the only thing that comes to mind is a poem, whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago: ‘Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere.’“
In its most basic form, Shape of Water is even a truer fairytale than Pan’s Labyrinth was, a simple love story: which is another reason it stands singular within Del Toro’s career. The story is set in an alternative version of 1962, at the height of Cold War where the tension between United States and USSR is afoot; and follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins) a janitor who works at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore who is mute due to an injury she had sustained as a child and communicates using sign language. She lives alone, and her two best friends are Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man and an artist; and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American co-worker. Hers is a world filled with silent dance movements and neon-colours, a dream-within-a-dream state; so it is no surprise when the roles of the princess in need and her hero is reversed.
The princess in question is a fish-like humanoid creature, “Amphibian Man”, who is brought into the facility to be examined and tortured in hopes of being turned into a weapon against the eastern block. The so-called monster is tall and strong-looking, but he is hold captive by shackles and electrocuted at every chance. The villain of the story, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), comes into picture here, too, and the comparison between them is clear from the start. The sea creature, played by Doug Jones who is a known collaborator of Del Toro, is meek and shy for the most part: his relationship with Elisa is symbolized by hard boiled eggs and dance sequences in black and white screens, underwater sex and most importantly, their mutual feeling of isolation and alienation within the society they exist in.
That alienation is also the base ground of the story, behind all the government conspiricies, abductions, falling fingers and forgetful husbands. Many of the characters in Shape of Water, at least those who are not in the role of villains, are members of marginalized communities; and even-though there is some miscommunication, fear and internal prejudice working against them, their understanding and acceptance of each other is the magical power, the deus ex machina of the film. Exploring little bits and pieces from many social problems interesting the twenty-first century, such as racism and homophobia, the movie finds its solution in a formula that many may call childish, but that childishness alone gives it an edge that is absent from hundreds of outings dealing with the same issues.
“Understanding is love. There’s no difference, really,” says Guillermo del Toro to Erik Henriksen of The Stranger, while discussing the tragedy and the delight of his movie.
And yes, Shape of Water is a very simple story about understanding and love, when you look at it from apart: it is built on the romanticized idealization of the “Creature from the Black Lagoon”, a 1954 made cult classic monster film directed by Jack Arnold and has a simple, happy ending, even an illogical one: after Elisa is fatally shot by Colonel near the canal, the creature takes her into the water where her old neck scars turn into gills and Giles, in the epilogue, tell that they lived happily ever after. It is true that this is an ending that seems just a little bit too great to be true, but Del Toro never promises his viewers realism. Instead, he promises them a different perception: a perception where they can leave behind their limitations and differences behind. It is okay that the girl is saved by the magical beast at the end, because girl herself saved that magical beast in the first place. According to Mexican director’s script, against all odes, the only thing that can stand against human wickedness is once again human compassion, and that throw of a dime itself in this struggle is what differentiates the hero from the villain.
“It’s about taking something that is completely unknown, and seeing how different people look at it,”speaks del Toro, that same interview. “One guy looks at it as a filthy thing that came from South America. The other one sees this thing as a miracle of nature and science. The other one sees it as a possible god that is doing miracles. And another one sees it as an essential part she’s been looking for all of her life, without knowing.”
Another area that may look like Shape of Water is a first for its creator is how political it appears. This is not an entirely false sentiment. In the end, it is just enough to look at what backgrounds protagonists and the antagonist of the movie come from: a violent, straight, white military man; who likes mechanical sexual intercourses, tortures others just because they look different than him and he wants he feel powerful against them, and casually harasses his workers stands alone against orphans and racial minorities, queers and immigrants. He carries an electric cattle prod with him at all times, resembling those of policemen terrorizing Civil Rights activists of the time. His fingers rot and stink under the light of day, his beloved Cadillac is vandalized at the end. He is a stereotypical caricature, a one dimensional representation of violence, as all fairytale villains are: but when put in context of today’s political climate, it starts to look like much more imminent danger rather than a kid’s nightmare.
Del Toro talks about the “urgent, political, human need” he felt to make this movie on many occasions, along with how personal it is for him. When asked about how much of him there is in Shape of Water by Josh Rottenberg of Los Angeles Times, he says that this time, he is talking about himself with adult concerns.
“There is the most of me. Most of the time — in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Devil’s Backbone” — I’m talking about my childhood. Here, I’m talking about me with adult concerns. Cinema. Love. The idea of otherness being seen as the enemy. What I feel as an immigrant. What I feel is an ugly undercurrent not in the past — not in the origins of fascism — but now. It is a movie that talks about the present for me. Even if it’s set in 1962, it talks about me now.”
It is easy to understand why the Mexican director feels a deep, personal connection with this movie, as his immigrant status is something he has talked many times: “I’ve been going through immigration all my life, and I’ve been stopped for traffic violations by cops and they get much more curious about me than the regular guy. The moment they hear my accent, things get a little deeper.”
“Hopefully one of the things the movie shows is that from 1962 to now, we’ve taken baby steps — and a lot of them not everyone takes. The thing that is inherent in social control is fear. The way they control a population is by pointing at somebody else — whether they’re gay, Mexican, Jewish, black — and saying, “They are different than you. They’re the reason you’re in the shape you’re in. You’re not responsible.” And when they exonerate you through vilifying and demonizing someone else, they control you.”
But even-though Shape of Water‘s political importance very much belongs to right now and right here, Del Toro’s advocacy for the different ones, “the others”, is not a new trend; and neither is his stance against all things fascist. Looking back at the Pale Man of Pan’s Labyrinth, he writes in a tweet from February 2, 2017 that this monster is thriving right now, especially thanks to the white supremacist and patriarchal nature of modern politics.
In another interview with Michael Guillen from 2006, Del Toro has said that he was appalled by not only the complicity — but also the participation of the Church within the entire fascist movement in Spain, mentioning that “the words that the priest speaks at the table in Pan’s Labyrinth are taken verbatim from a speech a priest used to give to the Republican prisoners in a fascist concentration camp.”
“The Pale Man represents the Church for me, y’know? [He] represents fascism and the Church eating the children when they have a perversely abundant banquet in front of them. There is almost a hunger to eat innocence. A hunger to eat purity.”
The fact that a movie from 2003 and one from 2017 can say the same thing, although in different languages and mind-planes, is what makes Del Toro’s filmmaking style so universal and so important in the first place. His stories are true modern fairytales, not just in their endings or their monsters but also in their way of talking about important issues without the borders of space, language or time. Our perception of political climate and social structures may change over time, as audiences, may change over time; and probably will do, too. Some day, the idea of typical appearances of powerful and powerless are going to be different, and Del Toro’s depiction of them; or the importance those depictions hold for the 21st century viewer will be forgotten — but the main message of them; that of embracing past, embracing those that look different, embracing yourself; will remain forever. That, in my opinion, alone by itself is enough to claim that Del Toro is truly changing the cinema, with each movie he puts out and each monster he draws — and to be completely honest, he is not just doing that when it comes to horror.
Stephen Galloway, in his piece for Hollywood Reporter named “Guillermo Del Toro on Confronting Childhood Demons and Surviving a Real-Life Horror Story”, tells that sitting with del Toro in his cavernous room, “it’s his innocence that’s most striking.” Behind the curtains the Mexican director has built around his private life, his shadows of catholic guilt and trauma, and his family of misunderstood monsters and Frankensteins, there stands a young child figuring out the hardest puzzle of human existence, and it it this child’s stories that we are witnessing on our screens: his dreams and hopes, his fairytales and his misery, his darkness and his mortality. In another example, Alfonso Cuarón, the Oscar winning Mexican director of Gravity who is a dear friend to Del Toro, praises the fact that his friend is not afraid of fragility, and thus able to share the most intimate things. It is as if he is a five year old still deep inside his mind, believing that his sketches and writings can stand against the torments of sleepless nights and dark corners of his heart.
I was a ten year old, merely a child, when I was watching Pan’s Labyrinth; my eyes gazing on the screen as Ofelia’s death was narrated by a deep, raspy voice: afraid of the world, of death, of monsters and darkness. I am now a twenty year old, still afraid of life, and many other things fill my heart with horror and anxiety; and I still carry Del Toro’s fairytales with me, his messages buried deep into my mind. I still try to accept my demons and find a way to embrace myself, just as he does. This is the true singularity of his work, whether it is Pan’s Labyrinth or Shape of Water, or even somethings as cheesy as Pacific Rim: the true power lies within one’s self, and a children’s dream of a happy ending is the closest thing to a miracle we can get.
Now, the Mexican director seems closer than ever to winning his first Oscar, with a Golden Lion, a Golden Globe and a Critics’ Choice Award under his belt thanks to Shape of Water. It is absolute truth, at least to me, when I say that it is due that he wins it; and a true prayer when I say that I hope he keeps sharing his fairytales and monsters with us, forever.