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The Shape of Water Movie Creator in "Exile" from Guadalajara and Mexico

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Guillermo del Toro Goméz

The timing of the release of the gorgeous movie, The Shape of Water produced by Mexican director  Guillermo del Toro Goméz couldn’t have lined up better with trip to Guadalajara, the city of del Toro’s birth. With this movie, del Toro beca,e the first Mexican to win the 74th Venice International Film Festival best film award. He likened producing the movie, with its many distractions of special effects, to building a castle of sand in a thunderstorm.

Anyone who has read best-selling Latin American literature like "House of Spirits" can’t help but see in del Toro’s treatment of horror and fantasy traces of that genre’s love of ghosts, spirits and the fantastic.

Del Toro is not only a very famous director, he is co-founder of the Guadalajara International Film Festival, the most famous film festival in Mexico. He is close friends with fellow Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, collectively known as "The Three Amigos de Cinema,” whom have collaborated with each other in many of their individual works, so much so that it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.  Del Toro is a prolific movie-producer in both languages, to the delight of anyone trying to learn Spanish on a Saturday night. 


I’m probably one of the rare Anglos to have seen del Toro’s incredibly dark drama, directed by Iñarritu, called Biuitiful,' a Spanish language movie that only lets the light into the sepulchre for the first and last five minutes of the film (by repeating the same scene). 

After having seen the bleakness presented in Biutiful, where virtually nothing good happens to the protagonist or those around him, I’m not so sure I would have gone to see The Shape of Water” had I known it was directed by the same person. Not that Buitiful isn’t good, it just that it’s dark as hell.

Horror films draw a small but fanatical (and lucrative) fan base, so lovers of the genre are already familiar with del Toro’s previous works like El orphanato (listed by many as one of the top 10 scariest movies ever made) and El Espinazo del Diablo, one of the more famous collaborations with Iñárritu (and a great movie for intermediate Spanish students).

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Pan's Labyrinth

Spaniards are tend to be drawn to any movie set to the theme of the Spanish Civil War, still a very popular backdrop for everything from horror to romantic Netflix-type series on Spain’s national RTVE channel. My Spanish friends especially appreciated his horror/fantasy tale Laberinto del Fauna (Pan’s Labyrinth)  Both El Espinzo del Diablo and Pans Labyrinth are set during that war.

Understanding his experience in Spain is very important to understanding many of his movies. Del Toro dislikes authoritarian and was particularly infuriated by the way the Catholic church collaborated with Francoists, thus he created in the Spanish Civil War a perfect setting for horror, and in the Spanish Fascists the perfect villains, for the tale of a princess, a fauna, and a particularly unforgettable Pale Man.

Light seems to have entered his work little by little. While Pan’s Labyrinth leaves you wondering if the end was happy or just a hallucination of a little girl, I was relieved to know from the very first five minutes of “The Shape of Water” that this time we were in for a fairy tale with a happy ending. 

One of the most compelling characteristics of the amphibious protagonist (Doug Jones) in the Shape of Water (also the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth) is the combined masculinity and elegance of his movement. It’s style that seems familiar, like something you’ve seen before, but where?  Del Toro shows his experience in Spain in coaching Jones to move like “a bullfighter.” 

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El orfanato

When I first read the movies description, my first thought was that it must have taken major cojones or a lot of juice for a producer to convince a production company like Fox to produce a movie that was a combination of The Little Mermaid, Hellboy, Creature of the Lost Lagoon and "un toque"of La-La Land. 

As it turns out, even with his ridiculous amount of past commercial success not only in movies but in video games and as a writer, in 2013, the Mexican film writer paid sculptors and designers out of his pocket to make the protagonist creature and the settings come to life. After another 12 months, he came with an almost complete product to the Fox studios.

The Shape of Water, which was produced in just 12 weeks, makes oblique rather than frontal political statements about bigotry and racism in the United States, which he has experienced first-hand - and not just early in his career as you’d expect. Even after winning as Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth, in seeking an agent in Los Angeles, one said, “Why would I want a Mexican? I already have a gardener.”

It is fun to read interviews in Spanish since famous people will sometimes say things that are different from their interviews in English-language interviews. Referring to the classic Beauty and the Beast, he said of The Shape of Water, “Me interesaba una historia de amor natural, que tuviera también sexo, pero no fuera el punto central” (I was interested the the story of [organic] love, of which sex is a part, but not the central point). 

In that same interview with Spain’s El Pais, perhaps because it was in Spanish to a European newspaper rather than American, del Toro was open about what he was seeing surrounding him today. “We live in a strange world,” he said, “where hate and cynicism are considered intelligent dialogue and if you talk about people’s feelings, you’re considered an idiot. Emotion is the new anecdote, the new punk.” 

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The beautiful colors of The Shape of Water

Although The Shape of Water was conceived in 2011, before today’s xenophobia in the White House, del Toro intuited something ‘grave’ was coming. This movie grabs us because it is so cross-current to what we’re experiencing and so sorely needed; to escape and re-connect to love and to beauty. The movie is all about being an outsider. 

The Shape of Water is one of the outsiders, as del Toro considers himself to be both in the sense of being a Mexican film-maker in Hollywood, and also in the sense of what he likes to produce. “Soy un outsider, demasiado comercial para el modo artista y demasiado artístico para el modo comercial.Y considera un “milagro” que haya podido hacer el cine que quería.” (I’m an outsider, too commercial to be artistic and to artistic to be commercial. It’s a miracle that the movie was made the way I wanted).

Unfortunately, del Toro did not come to the U.S. only to be close to the California film industry.  I have often written that Mexico is completely safe. Perhaps I should add a caveat, “unless you happen to be a wealthy Mexican.” Del Toro’s entrepreneurial father was kidnapped in 1997 and the family ended up paying twice the original ransom amount. The event caused them to move to America.  The move wasn’t a welcome one as indicated by his remark "Every day, every week, something happens that reminds me that I am an involuntary exile [from my country}."

Related:  Being able to read interviews from a foreign perspective is one of the 10 reasons you should learn Spanish after 50.

About the Author

Kerry Baker is a partner with Ventanas Mexico and author of "If I Only Had a Place," a guide to renting luxuriously in Mexico for less.  Mexico is different from the U.S. in how you rent long-term, with both advantages and disadvantages. Learn a system that will help you rent well year after year.

 She also wrote the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best language tools on the web, with interactive links. Her most recent book is “The Mexico Solution; Saving your money, sanity, and quality of life through part-time life in Mexico.”

You can use my lesson plans or create a unique one every day, free, with the tools provided in the Guide.  Use it with your laptop, e-reader or tablet.