On Thursday evening in New York City, the Museum of Modern Art presented its annual Film Benefit, alongside sponsor Chanel, and bowed to Guillermo del Toro.
In a celebration attended by del Toro’s many collaborators, including Jessica Chastain, Richard Jenkins, Oscar Isaac, Tim Blake Nelson and Michael Shannon, New York’s haute film community paid its dues to the master of genre.
It’s not often that the honorees of MoMA’s film benefit — such as Penelope Cruz, George Clooney and Laura Dern — receive MoMA’s honor on the eve of a major film release. Yet the night before Netflix’s debut of “Pinocchio,” del Toro’s bravado interpretation of the iconic fairytale, took the stage as honoree and director.
He stood before MoMA no longer as a young filmmaker, submitting his first film, 1992’s “Cronos,” to its New Directors, New Films festival, but as a statesman for monsters and men. As the creator of films like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Shape of Water“ — each having better defined the outline of humanity through the embrace of difference — del Toro defended his pursuit of the beautiful creature, of the monster whose heart we hold in our hand.
While “Pinocchio” — a stop-motion film that took 1,000 hours of shooting and half of del Toro’s career to be greenlit — was hailed by MoMA on Thursday as the “definitive adaptation” of the children’s classic, not all in the film community have embraced the movie’s dark turn into themes of authoritarianism. Del Toro’s take returns Pinocchio and Geppetto’s story to the backdrop of Italian fascism and renders the classic story of a disobedient puppet as a grief-strewn fable of loss and submission.
“These are very, very dark times,” del Toro said in his speech to the benefit’s guests. “The prelude to totalitarian dictatorship is always preceded by a few signs: The rejection of science. The rejection of art as elitism. The enthrallment of popular art as the only dignified thing to pursue. And the embrace of folk wisdom that creates hatred and division, that makes us believe we are separate and not together in this.”
That’s why, as del Toro described, normalcy and monsters — a parable’s contrast which each of del Toro’s films has carved in more beautiful measure — is an innately political notion.
“A monster may be the anomaly,” del Toro continued, “but fantasy allows us to grasp ideas and concepts that we could not embrace or encompass in any other way. Fantasy sends us against a world that has made us believe that the fabrication of differences like geography and politics, which are truly silly conceptions that we have agreed to follow, have more root in reason.”
“The final duty of art is mystery,” he summed. “And we are on a journey to find the impossible, and I believe in the power of art to heal us and make us whole. I believe that in times of darkness like now, if we seek each other, we find each other only through this. Because art is the common spirit which we all share.”
It’s that sentiment which brings each of us to del Toro’s films, made clear by the guests on Thursday.
“I got to be a monster in one of his movies,” Chastain, who has appeared in del Toro’s “Mama” and “Crimson Peak,” told Variety before the benefit on Thursday. “Guillermo told us one thing, which I’ll always remember. He said: ‘Everyone thinks the monsters are the ghosts and the creatures, but what if, in reality, people can become monsters?’ Not every artist can strike that balance, can teach us things and bring us together with bitter medicine and beautiful truths, but it’s a task cut out for Guillermo del Toro.”
As for the Academy Award-winning director, del Toro, teary-eyed, offered the clearest thesis for his own work.
“The only way you can be loved is if you’re loved for who you are, where you have no simulation and you’re not afraid to wear your imperfections as a badge of honor,” he told the benefit’s guests. “And this is why I love monsters, and this is why films have saved my life so many times.”
“These convictions and these images exist in a land beyond words,” del Toro summed, “in a place that can only be touched by sound and image. I have followed the beckoning of things I can not name, and I have aspired to dreams and ideas to which I have been faithful. I have abandoned reason to birth monsters, and I have been disobedient with reality to find truth.”