VENICE, ITALY —
Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water is an aquatic Beauty and the Beast, a transgressive fairy tale about a young woman's love for a scaly creature from the Amazonian depths.
Like the best fables, it's also rooted in the real world: the story of a migrant from the south facing a hostile reception in a security-obsessed United States.
"I think that fantasy is a very political genre," del Toro said Thursday at the Venice Film Festival, where The Shape of Water had its red-carpet world premiere. It's one of 21 films competing for the coveted Golden Lion, the festival's top prize.
"Fairy tales were born in times of great trouble. They were born in times of famine, pestilence and war," he added.
Part monster movie, part noir thriller, part Hollywood musical, the film defies categorization, though Del Toro took a stab, suggesting it's "like Douglas Sirk rewriting Pasolini's Theorem with a fish."
Some critics are calling it del Toro's best film since Pan's Labyrinth in 2006. The Daily Telegraph summed it up as "an honest-to-God B-movie blood-curdler that's also, somehow, a shimmeringly earnest and boundlessly beautiful melodrama." Screen International called it "exquisite ... del Toro at his most poignant and sweet."
Set in early-1960s Baltimore, the film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute orphan who works as a cleaner at a high-security lab. She forges a bond with a captured creature who is at the center of a Cold War tug-of-war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
"It's a movie set in 1962, but it's a movie about today," del Toro told reporters at a Venice news conference. "It's about the issues we have today. When America talks about America being great again, I think they are dreaming of an America that was in gestation in `62 — an America that was futuristic, full of promise ... but at the same time there was racism, sexism, classism."
Del Toro said the creature — played with fittingly fluid movements by Doug Jones — is the only character in the film without a name, because he represents "many things to many people."
For lonely Elisa, "it's the first time somebody, something is looking at her, looking back the way you look back at the person you love." For Michael Shannon's ruthless U.S. government agent Strickland, the creature is "a dark, dirty thing that comes from the south" and must be eliminated.
"I am Mexican, and I know what it is to be looked at as `the other' no matter what circumstances you're in," the director said — and the character of the creature embodied that otherness.
The film features warm performances from Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins as Elisa's friends — and a mesmerizing turn from Hawkins, who creates a character of depth, passion and compassion without saying a word.
Hawkins said that when del Toro first told her about the movie, she was working on her own project about "a woman who doesn't know she's a mermaid." Some of those ideas fed into the character of Elisa.
"It was just synchronistic," she said. "It was very odd. Those things rarely happen and when they do you know it's something special."
The Shape of Water features del Toro's usual rich mix of ingredients: everything from Russian spies to musical interludes. Its overriding message, the director says, is "to choose love over fear."
"We live in times where fear and cynicism are used in a way that is very pervasive and persuasive," del Toro said. "Our first duty when we wake up is to believe in love.
"It's the strongest force in the universe," he said. "The Beatles and Jesus can't be wrong — not both of them at the same time."