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The Shape of Water, the Other, and the longing for an enchanted world

The Shape of Water, the Other, and the longing for an enchanted world

Natan Mladin writes that ‘The Shape of Water’ is just the latest expression of the persistent longing for an enchanted world.

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On the surface, the multiple–Oscar–winning The Shape of Water is a slightly eerie period–fantasy romance. It’s the story of a seemingly impossible and forbidden love between two characters as unlikely as they come – she (Elise Esposito, played by Sally Hawkins), a mute Latino cleaner in a high security military lab during the Cold War; the other, an Amazonian sinewy fish–man snatched from a river to be dissected and leveraged against the Russians.

Taken as a parable, The Shape of Water drips plenty of meaning. As extended metaphors, parables have an excess of meaning; one can never say ‘this parable means that and there is nothing to add’. Parables invite readers/viewers to enter their worlds and unravel their significance.

At one level, as director Guillermo del Toro himself points out, the movie is a parable about the unexpected connection, or even communion, with the (seemingly monstrous) Other. Those people we instinctively write off as bigoted or benighted, or just those points of view we discount because they upset our cognitive comfort. The Shape of Water is the story of what happens when instead of recoiling in horror we reach out, across the chasm of difference, and discover an Other that is much the same as us.

But there is a deeper level in The Shape of Water. As a whole, the film reveals something of our cultural moment. You will often hear that we live in a disenchanted world. This is probably one of the main differences between us and our ancestors. They lived in a world of magic, of angels and demons, of higher powers and forces. With the advent of reason and the march of science all these went out the door, or so the story goes. But as it turns out, the longing for an enchanted world hasn’t disappeared with disenchantment itself (and secularization more generally).

Contemporary art and popular culture constantly render echoes of transcendence and hints of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘fullness’ – a place or condition where “life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more what it should be”.

Poets, songwriters, and filmmakers like del Toro constantly admit to hearing these echoes, and in doing so they prompt us to do the same. The Shape of Water is just the latest expression of the persistent longing for an enchanted world. It’s a testimony to the nagging sense that there is ‘more’ than meets the eye of reason, the scalpel of science, and the materialistic offer of capitalism – however difficult naming that ‘more’ may be.

In 2013 we did some research on ‘belief in post–religious Britain’. We found that a spiritual current runs deep through the nation, with 77% of all adults and 61% of people who do not identify as religious (now at roughly 50% of the population) believing that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means.” Particularly more esoteric beliefs, our study revealed, remain strong.

There are many ways to explain The Shape of Water‘s success at the Oscars – the politics of the movie are painfully topical – but among the explanations we should also count the movie’s ability to capture the enduring yearning for an enchanted world. As Charles Taylor put it, the secular is haunted.


 Image from geograph available in the public domain.

Nathan Mladin

Nathan Mladin

Nathan joined Theos in 2016. He holds a PhD in Systematic Theology from Queen’s University Belfast and is the author of several publications, including the Theos reports Data and Dignity: Why Privacy Matters in the Digital Age, Religious London: Faith in a Global City (with Paul Bickley), and ‘Forgive Us Our Debts’: lending and borrowing as if relationships matter (with Barbara Ridpath).

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Posted 14 March 2018

Fiction, Humanity, Modernity


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