Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) restages the biblical narrative of Ruth in Cold War America, crystallizing the parallel through setting numerous scenes at a local cinema that is playing The Story of Ruth (1960). The book of Ruth tells the tale of how a non-Israelite outsider could be welcomed into the kingdom of God and ultimately into the lineage of Christ. Likewise, del Toro populates his tale with multiple outsiders—multiple ‘Ruths’—including a mute woman, an African American cleaner, a Russian Communist, and an elderly homosexual male. However, these are merely reflections of the ultimate outsider, Del Toro’s ‘Monster’. A new and anthropomorphic species of fish has been caught by the government, and these four outsiders must bind together in order to return him to the sea. During this process, the mute Elisa and the Monster make love, transgressing multiple sexual norms of the age and symbolizing true unity with ‘the other’ (all while being equally as ribald as Ruth at the foot of Boaz’ bed). This ‘otherness’ is contrasted throughout by the main antagonist, Strickland, who quotes bible verses about power in order to justify his own abusive behaviour, suggesting that the central ideological tension in the narrative is between a theology of power and a theology of liberation. The film then ends with the villain dying, while the mute Elisa is resurrected and given the promise of “happily ever after,” paralleling the coming of Christ from the line of Ruth and suggesting that the only way into the kingdom of heaven is through embracing ‘the other’. This parallel is likely intentional, for del Toro similarly ended Pan’s Labyrinth (2007) with the protagonist resurrecting to heaven. Thus, del Toro—himself a Mexican immigrant—has used film and theology to craft a modern version of Ruth that transgresses multiple boundaries in a way similar to the ancient version. Further, in making his modern Ruth into a sea-monster, he not only hints at ethnic, normative and cultural liberation for humans, but the embracing of a trans-human liberation that could include animals and possibly even the future rights of AI.
Lyonhart, Jonathan and Matheny, Jennifer
"The Monstrous Other and the Biblical Narrative of Ruth,"
Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 24:
2, Article 3.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol24/iss2/3