The smartest thing about this movie is its setting. It is post WWII-era Baltimore, at the height of the cold war. Americans fear the Russians and have gigantic secret labs full of variegated weapons research. This draws out to the point of capturing mysterious amphibious creatures from the Amazon to study their anatomy in an effort to amplify human wartime capability. Elsewhere within the city, African-Americans cannot dine in at an American diner and can only get take out food. A white American man is dismissed brutally from the same diner by it's owner for showing traits of homosexuality in a tender moment. In short, the setting, is a city and a world filled with diversity that finds itself lost in a potpourri of discrimination, disparity, fear, and hatred.
Into this world, Guillermo Del Toro (and co-writer Vanessa Taylor) throw characters that embody compassion, friendship, and empathy. A black woman helps a mute woman from being bullied and bossed around at work. The mute woman is the only friend of the aforementioned gay man. This trio work towards helping the captive and tortured amphibious creature escape and potentially return home. Aiding them is a Russian spy, who is betrayed by his own country. It easily dawns upon one that the marginalized characters here are the only ones capable of love. At one point, Elisa (a heart-achingly graceful performance by Sally Hawkins) does say something on the lines of - "If we humans can't help him (the creature), does that make us humans at all?"
That's a political statement immensely relevant of the times we live in. And Del Toro doesn't mince any words, visuals, or emotions in portraying it throughout the film. Having said that, I can't think of another film with such rich political subtext that is also cinematically so vibrant, beautiful, and effervescent. And so emotional. Maybe, all political statements are fueled by emotion.
Del Toro's love for all things cinema is nothing foreign to the average film enthusiast. Here, he stages a film that feels like a musical sequence (quite akin to what Edgar Wright does in Baby Driver) - scene after scene bubbles with magical surrealism, cinematic grace, and the energy of a figure skater. Profound credit for this does have to go to Alexander Desplat's soothing music and Dan Laustsen's popping visuals. Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all very good, offering remarkable realism to their characters.
We live in times that make one question if we've learned any lessons from humanity's debacles of the last century. Hatred and discrimination extend to ones holding a different color, sexual orientation, caste, region of birth, and so on and so forth. The list is endless. Guillermo Del Toro asks if that makes us human at all?
"The Shape of Water" is out in theatres now.
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A comedy that is fun, while being just good cinema in the first place.