Does ‘The Shape of Water’ depict the shape of us?

By the Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot

The Oscar for “Best Picture” tends to be divisive, especially with recent changes to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ rules allowing for several films, rather than a few, to receive nomination. This year, the film “The Shape of Water” — which tells of a mute woman protecting and falling in love with a “monster” — won the prize. Likewise, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro garnered “Best Director” for the film.
Del Toro has a gift for immersing viewers into the world of his films, often dark and moody places. Marks of a del Toro film are fairy talelike settings that stun with production aesthetics yet unsettle with flares of violence and suffering, loss and wavering hope.

In “The Shape of Water,” elements are unseemly and disturbing, yet the bit that gets the most press — the romance that develops between the female protagonist and the strange “fish man” — comes about after the creature is captured in South America and brought to the United States by the government and military for inspection. The grotesque elements of the film are evident in the driven “Man in Black” agent who bullies and beats the creature and the governments who vie to exploit the creature and its unknown powers and abilities. The ugliest character in the film is not the monster in the tank but the ones raging on dry land.

The film is set in 1962 Baltimore during the “Space Race” and Cold War. The nicer thoughts of the base’s leaders are about helping astronauts gain the edge on the Russians for more than G-force survival skills. One research scientist is actually an undercover Soviet agent, torn between his scientific calling and his patriotism when asked to kill the creature if he cannot abduct it.

The mute woman is part of the janitorial crew, working long hours on the night shift, mostly ignored by the officials and soldiers who bustle past her. She winds up cleaning the observation lab, discovering that the much-feared creature is not violent but merely responding to the pain and fear fostered by the government and military. She builds communication and trust with the creature via a nightly ritual of sharing a meal of hard-boiled eggs, playing records with a portable turntable and teaching simple sign language.

Soon, the woman begins her efforts to help the creature escape. The undercover Soviet scientist, a fellow cleaning lady and the woman’s next-door neighbor, a down-on-his-luck artist, take part in the effort to get the creature to safety. Each of these characters experiences being disregarded, making their desire to participate in this mission of mercy even more noble as they transcend their inhibitions or the inhibitions of others to take such risk.

When a friend recently shared that her eldest daughter viewed del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” as part of a recent class, I questioned the teacher’s decision to show this film to high school freshmen. I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” when it was in theaters in 2006, and I still shudder at some moments from the film, even as I concede its cinematic worth.

Likewise, I would never recommend “The Shape of Water” to a younger audience, yet I can see why del Toro’s films have gained a following. He roots his strange stories in the midst of a world that needs the disregarded and marginal characters to make sense of why existence is worth it.

For Christians, such films remind us of our identity as a people who follow a Savior who was disregarded and mocked in his life and eventually suffered at Golgotha. I feel kinship with the characters of del Toro’s films, seeing persons left out of the power plays that drive the world yet embraced fully by the Sermon on the Mount and the daring welcome equally to Jew and Gentile, post-Day of Pentecost. Is the church willing to risk itself for those who are scared and shunned? Are we willing to offer something other than platitude or quiet support when the world’s violence escalates? What more are people fed by a simple meal of bread and cup able to do in trying times?

It’s noteworthy that I saw this film on the evening before the global “March for our Lives” events filled streets around the world and before the Sunday in which I stood in a pulpit and shared the story of Jesus on a colt, riding toward the heaviness of Holy Week’s unfolding narrative. Were these three experiences interlinked? I believe so.

“Everyone that is dreaming of a parable of using genre fantasy to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today, you can do it,” del Toro said on Oscar night. “This is a door. Kick it open and come in.”

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister of American Baptist Churches of New York State.