Guadalajara-born Guillermo del Toro – a member of that triumviate of Mexican film directors that has stunned the globe in recent years by soaring above the predictable artistic niches of movie industries both north and south of the border – has put another jewel in the corona of the “Tres Amigos.”
On Sunday, Del Toro took Best Director in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes ceremony for “The Shape of Water,” originally conceived as a remake of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). In doing so, the director, who has not lived in his home city in two decades, added his fantastic, poignant, poetic thriller to an astonishing list of must-see works created by himself and his compadres Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón, who, along with Mexican cinematographers such as Emmanuel Lubezki, have become an ad hoc cinematic cartel, with far more salutary results than better-known gangs. (In 2006, each of the three came out with films that thrilled critics: Gonzalez Iñárritu did “Babel,” Cuarón did “Children of Men” and del Toro “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Gonzalez Iñárritu went on to more acclaim for “Birdman,” Cuarón for “Gravity” and del Toro for “Pacific Rim,” advising and assisting each other along the way.)
“The Shape of Water,” to be released in Guadalajara Friday, January 12, had already racked up over 40 prizes – notably in the 2017 Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals – before its win Sunday. The Golden Globes Best Director award – although marred by disappointment among film-industry feminists chagrined that it came from an all-male field of nominees – increases the flick’s odds of taking top honors at the Academy Awards, set to perk up those stateside winter doldrums March 4.
Some have called del Toro, Gonzalez Iñárritu and Cuarón more international than Mexican. While all three were born in Mexico and made their early films in Spanish, for decades they have been putting down roots far from home – in Europe, Los Angeles, Toronto, etcetera. Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Babel,” for example, combined dialogue in Spanish, English, Arabic and Japanese. All three can now command huge Hollywood budgets or work outside the Hollywood studio system if they prefer.
Del Toro has an especially difficult relationship with Mexico. Although he attended film school in Guadalajara, his father, the founder of a local auto dealership, was kidnapped in 1997, causing the whole family to move abroad. Del Toro calls himself an “involuntary exile.”
Likewise, even though all three collaborated in the 2008, Spanish-language dark comedy about soccer players in Mexico, “Rudo y Cursi,” which was well received here, they have at times been accused of abandoning their Mexican heritage to embrace Hollywood and Europe, a charge del Toro rejects as “infantile.” As if to accentuate this denial, when del Toro was asked after his triumph Sunday how such a joyful guy comes to make such dark movies, he answered simply, “I’m Mexican … No one loves life more than we do, in a way, because we are so conscious about death.”
And all three Mexican directors share a common background as Roman Catholics. Even though del Toro has described himself as a “raging atheist,” a New York Times writer said his “Pan’s Labyrinth” reflects his Latin American tendency toward magical realism and is “a kind of Catholic fairy tale.”
“Ultimately, my films are about characters trying to access some kind of spiritual realm on earth,” del Toro agreed.
This spiritual element may be hard to see in del Toro’s flat-out monster flicks, such as “Pacific Rim” (2013), a convoluted combat tale that seems to have been inspired by video games and was most successful in China. But “The Shape of Water,” with its tender, transformational romance between a mute woman and a beleaguered humanoid, promises to usher the viewer into that spiritual realm.