Op-Ed

‘The Shape of Water’ is about the unexpected shape of God

Scene from Oscar-nominated film, “The Shape of Water”
Scene from Oscar-nominated film, “The Shape of Water”

In the Academy Awards extravaganza tonight, my money’s on “The Shape of Water” for best picture and on its star, Sally Hawkins for best female actor. If you’re looking for spiritual uplift, you really should see it.

The film is about an amphibian creature dredged from a river in South America. It’s a fairy ale about a princess (Elisa Esposito) who falls in love with a monster. It’s science-fiction fantasy about a gigantic scaly Merman who learns to communicate and to love. It’s about an alien trying to get back home.

But above all, the film is about a God made flesh who’s killed by the state, but then rises from the dead and gives eternal life to his devotee.

The film’s central theme is conveyed in its beautiful, mysterious title that invites its audience to imagine the impossible. The shape of water? Of course, it has none at all. Water takes the contours of its container.

And that’s the point magistically asserted at the very beginning of the picture. There the story’s world is portrayed as filled with the medium of life itself. As the movie unfolds, it’s hard to miss that theological point: the world is full of possibilities for realizing the presence of the divine.

The patriarchal establishment can’t see that. Only the social misfits do —mute janitor, her African-American friend, an aging gay unemployed artist and a Russian enemy of the state.

There are plenty of references that suggest such meaning:

▪ More than once, we’re told explicitly that the film’s androgynous monster is worshiped as a god by primitives in its place of origin. It has powers to heal and resurrect from the dead.

▪ The central character’s apartment is located above a movie theater showing a biblical film, The Story of Ruth — about an outsider who embraces an alien God.

▪ Near the story’s beginning, the fish-human’s military antagonist discusses specifically his own idea of God. In doing so, he reveals why recognizing the divine in such unexpected form is impossible for him. He’s looking for someone made in his own macho image — white, male and violent. In the film, God’s actual incarnation is anything but.

Yet, like the Roman soldier at the foot of Jesus’ cross, the chauvinist womanizer finally recognizes and confesses that the monster’s divine identity.

Yes, this film is about our experience of God’s shape, and omnipresence. It’s about water, baptism, cleansing, and salvific intercourse with the divine. It’s about the work of the marginalized (and especially women) that enables the divine to manifest in a world created by men — specifically by a military committed to the God’s destruction.

It’s about females cleaning up the messes that men create everywhere, from their bathrooms to the battlefield and the world at large. As Hawkins clutches her Oscar tonight, watch for those feminist and perhaps even theological themes in her acceptance speech.

In the end, however, “The Shape of Water,” is about the total commitment that the discovery of God provokes. For a moment, as the film concludes, Elisa recovers her voice. She gazes at the monstrous but fascinating object of her love and prays the haunting words of the picture’s central air, “You’ll Never Know.”

She whispers:

“If I can do one thing more

To prove that I love you,

I swear I don’t know how.

You’ll never know

If you don’t know now.”

Reach Mike Rivage-Seul, retired Berea College professor and former priest, at Mike_Rivage-Seul @berea.edu.

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