When it comes to fleshing out characters, few filmmakers working today can claim to match Guillermo del Toro for attention to detail. From birth dates to zodiac signs, to favourite foods and even intimate secrets, the Mexican writer/director is known for giving his characters rich backstories; information that audiences are often not privy to.
Take Idris Elba’s Pacific Rim character, Stacker Pentecost. A gruff but compassionate general, Stacker is a force for good in a world ravaged by otherworldly giants. He is a strong leader with a stiff upper lip, almost bordering on cliché. But what’s in that surname? Given del Toro’s Catholic upbringing, it is unsurprising that his films are loaded with religious symbolism. In the case of the Pentecost family, they are harbingers of a new era for the previously-defunct Jaeger pilot programme. Similarly, the holy day of Pentecost, which is part of the Christian resurrection celebration of Easter, signals the end of the holiday’s season along with the birth of a new church.
Pentecost is traditionally understood as a story of the Holy Spirit, which descended down on the Apostles in the form of tongues of flame, a fulfilment of prophecy. In Acts 2:17 it reads, “And in the last days, God says, I will pour out my spirit upon every sort of flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy and your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams.” Just as well, Stacker succeeds in reviving the old Jaeger programme, saving the world, and redeeming a tortured past that prevented him from putting any faith in his legacy.
This symbolism is represented visually too. We see Stacker in flashbacks, lit by a shining sun behind his head. We see him bleed bright red blood, the colour of the Pentecostal holiday. We also learn about Stacker’s terminal illness due to radiation exposure back when the colossal Jaeger robots were built without radiation shields. Inevitably, as with most cinematic heroes of this ilk, Stacker will have to ensure the success of his world-saving endeavour through self-sacrifice.
It is important to note that the Pentecost family are black. Historically speaking, Christian symbolism in film tends to be bestowed upon white characters, be they tragic or heroic. The Pentecost legacy continues with Stacker’s son, Jake (John Boyega), the protagonist of Pacific Rim: Uprising. The etymology of the name Jacob roughly translates as ‘to follow’ or ‘to supplant’. Fitting, given that the sequel’s premise rests on Jacob living up to his father’s reputation, which seems to be met with a measure of reluctance based on the available trailers.
This trend is evident across del Toro’s filmography. Take the character Ofelia from 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth – the original spelling of the name, Ophelia, translates as ‘to aid’. Ofelia’s entire arc in the film relies upon her saving her unborn brother, her sickly mother, and her own supernatural royal identity as a princess of the underworld. This further calls to mind the character of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Similarly tragic, Ophelia is torn between two sides, just as Ofelia is torn between her duty to care for her mother and her desire to understand the magical world around her.
Both are restricted by highly political fathers who are both suspicious and fearful of their daughters (as well as locking them in their room). Visually, Ofelia and Ophelia carry the symbolism of flowers and death. The queen of Denmark sprinkles flowers on Ophelia’s coffin at her funeral while a dead tree seen at the end of Pan’s Labyrinth sprouts a flower similar to the magical one mentioned earlier in the film.
Then there’s Tom Hiddleston’s Thomas Sharpe in Crimson Peak, whose first name literally translates as ‘twin’. His character has a strong association with Thomas the Apostle, who initially doubted the resurrection of Jesus, just as Sharpe both doubts then becomes convinced of his love for his newfound wife, plus the ghosts she claims to see. There’s Elisa Esposito (whose surname translates as ‘to place outside’ or ‘to expose’) from The Shape of Water, a mute character orphaned as a child and left by a river.
You could take any number of characters from del Toro’s films and run wild with the meaningful possibilities of their names. But it’s also true that these characters are meant to be seen as they come to life on screen. As del Toro says in his introduction to ‘Hellboy: The Art of the Movie’, “What makes a man a man? A friend of mine once wondered. Is it his origins? The way he comes to life? I don’t think so. It’s the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.”
Published 18 Mar 2018
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