But it’s also more than that.
The movie is also an explicit meditation on biblical stories (the story of Samson primarily, but also Ruth) and themes, particularly the theme of the image of God.
[Warning: there will be spoilers below, but they will be clearly marked.]
Early in the film, our mute protagonist, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and her co-worker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are talking with Michael Shannon’s brutal government man Richard Strickland about the creature (Doug Jones), who is being held in a top-secret facility where the women work as janitors. Strickland insists that the creature is an ‘it’, not a ‘him’, a thing, not a person, because the creature, he explains, is not made in the image of God. ‘God’s a person,’ Strickland tells Zelda, ‘he looks like me, or even you… Well, maybe more like me’.
This question of who is and who is not made in the image of God rears its ugly head again in one particular scene which briefly, but forcefully, reveals that African Americans like Zelda, as well as gay men like Giles (Richard Jenkins), are not seen as divine image bearers by everyone in this early 1960s America.
Strickland’s failure to recognize the image of God in the Amphibian Man inevitably leads to violence, and, as in any version of Beauty and the Beast (and as The Shape of Water hints from the start), in the end it’s the relentless hunter who is the true beast, who sheds something of his own God-given shape along the way. In the film’s final scene, Strickland catches Elisa and the Amphibian Man at the docks, just before the creature can escape to freedom, and shoots and kills both. However, the creature’s miraculous healing powers eventually revive him, and suddenly the one whom we were told was not made in the image of God becomes the film’s Christ-figure, dying and rising again like Jesus, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3). Like Christ, the Amphibian Man also grants resurrection and new life to those who love him, in this case, Elisa. Even Strickland himself, before the tide of violence turns his direction, utters a confession reminiscent of the centurion standing by the cross on Good Friday. If anyone in the movie, this scene suggests, is a reflection of God, it may have been the “creature” all along. Strickland, in insisting otherwise, had been as blind as Samson.
[END OF SPOILERS]
Perhaps, The Shape of Water proposes, perhaps we need a more expansive definition of “the image of God.”
Perhaps our understanding of the divine image doesn’t need a guard at the door but rather a lookout, someone watching for those who’ve been excluded, so they can be welcomed in.
Perhaps—just as we recognize that these characters were wrong to question the black woman’s or the gay man’s having been made in the image of God—perhaps there are those still today whom we, consciously or unconsciously, actively or passively, by our words or by our actions, insist are not divine image bearers. Enemies, “Philistines,” outsiders, pagan Moabites like Ruth, a child in the womb, a transgender woman, those who look different than us, who look different than our mental picture of God, anyone to whom we can show mercy, but instead pass by on the other side.
Perhaps precisely that person is the neighbor we’re called to love.
The film closes with narration by Richard Jenkins which unlocks the meaning of the title with a few lines, probably inspired by the Sufi poet Rumi:
Unable to perceive the shape of You,This movie tells the story of a woman who finds the humanity in a “beast” and sees the shape of her love everywhere she looks, every time she sees the rain outside her bus window. But it’s also about a world and characters who are challenged and often fail to see the shape of the invisible God everywhere they look, in the lives of those all around them—even in the most unlikely faces.
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.
In a lot of ways, we live in a very different age than the 1960s the film depicts, and yet this challenge persists. May God’s people today have eyes to see.