Ice merchants

Image: Soledad Seville
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By AURÉLIA HUBNER PEIXOUTO*

Comment on the film directed by João Gonzalez

ice merchants premiered on February 16, 2023, and is the third film by Portuguese director João Gonzalez. Produced by Bruno Caetano, COLA Animation, Michael Proenca, Wildstream, John Gonzalez and Royal College of Art, with editing, music, animation by João Gonzalez, as well as animation by Ana Nunu and orchestration by Nuno Lobo, won the Annie award in the category of Best Short Film, having, since its release, collected awards in many other festivals (Festival Cannes Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Guadalajara International Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Valladolid International Film Week, Curtas Vila Do Conde International Festival, Brussels International Film Festival, Monstra Festival, and continues to raise new awards). With a duration of 15 minutes, the short film is the result of its creator's master's work.

João Gonzalez, in his 27 years of life, has already built an impressive trajectory, showing his talent in several artistic areas. With exceptional skills in animation, illustration, directing and even music, he traced a solid background, starting with his studies in Multimedia at the renowned Escola Superior de Media, Artes e Design do Politécnico do Porto (ESMAD). Seeking continuous improvement, João Gonzalez continued his studies at the renowned Royal College of Art, in the United Kingdom, where he obtained a master's degree that certainly improved his creative abilities even more, which we saw as a result in the work in focus. Originally from Porto, this polyvalent artist has a genuine reason to be proud, as he carries with him the honor of representing his country and his cinematographic work on the international stage and definitively drawing attention to the stage of Portuguese animation.

The opening of this short film shows us a child playing on a swing, suspended from a wooden 'half-house' raised by ropes and pulleys to a steep icy mountain. By the time of the first thirty seconds of the film, we are already introduced to the extreme fragility and danger of building a home at the ends of the world, isolated, where a child dangles over an abyss. From the opening credits on a black background, even before the first image, the sound design sends us, synesthetically, to the cold winds, to the agonizing creaking of ropes, whether from the swing or those that support the weight of the house on the icy mountain wall.

In summary, the plot, presented without any incursion of verbal language, deals with the story of a father and his son (or daughter, there is no allusion to the child's gender) who live in that cold house above the town where they sell ice. Their faces and features are extremely economical and simple, and the collars of their coats always hide their mouths. Every day they skydive to make their sales, and climb high on a motorbike, bringing up their livelihood, their money, and a new hat. At night, they put water in a box so that it turns into ice overnight so that sales can be repeated day after day. The child, during breaks, plays swinging over the precipice, until the father rings the bell and calls him back to the house, to meals, to his routine tasks.

The scenes of the parachute jumps, made by the father with the child in front and snuggled in front of him and the ice box at the back, are especially lyrical, and show the father in physical distortions that make him gigantic, big disproportionate and magnificent arms and legs . It is noteworthy that both father and son lose their hats with each fall, being bought back and lost again on the descents... The absence of the mother is highlighted by her empty space at the father's bed, and by the close-ups on her unused yellow mug , which they wistfully observe.

In addition to mourning, which involves father and son in a sad and cold climate, another theme narrated is warming up. From the first scenes, we follow the temperature gauge on the house thermometer which, rising, foreshadows the catastrophe that will befall the characters. With the high temperature, the ice from the sale is not made in the box, the mountain begins to melt, and the house is hit by an avalanche of ice from the melting mountain. The house starts to plummet, tipping over and barely holding on, and here's an incredible close-up of one of the ropes snapping strand by strand.

With the slope, the parachute slips and is lost. Half of the suspended house is giving way and is about to fall... There is no way out for the man and the child, and so the man prepares the child in front of him for a last jump, without a parachute. But, distressingly, the child turns body to face with the father, cringing in fear. The father then embraces his son, turns his back to the abyss, and, embracing his son, falls.

In the fall, the magical realism that was already announced from the beginning, presents its God ex machina profusely lyrical with the appearance of the mother, who rises in the air to the two, embraces them, and protects.

The color of the mother's coat and hat, yellow like her mug, and the father's, red, give the caps and shades of orange in the film more meaning, showing how in the short film, which dispenses with all verbal language, the colors are intensely charged with narrative meanings. Father and son are then supported in their descent by a fluffy mountain made of the hats they lost each time they jumped to sell ice.

So, they get up and follow, the father puts his son on his shoulders, picks up one of the caps from the ground and gives it to his son, and they leave the screen, leaving the focus to the subtle fall of two other hats that gently descend on the mountain. The mountain of hats is also an instrument to show the mother's past efforts in the daily struggle. At the base of the mountain there are yellow hats, the mother's color, and, as you reach the summit, they disappear, giving way to the red and orange hats of the father and son.

The animation mixes the very simple and solid design with the technique called “hatching” or “crosshatching“, a method of shading in which parallel or crisscrossing lines are used to create tones and textures in a drawing. The lines sometimes appear more spaced or dense, adding shadows and volume with shades of blue and orange, leaning towards red and yellow in various situations, providing an appearance of depth and detail in the mountains, the house, objects and characters. As much for the technical use as for the use of colors, we cannot fail to remember The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai, even more so because here the water will also be, whether solid as ice or in the melting avalanche that will engulf the house at the end of the short, also a central character. As in Hokusai's work, water, the disorderly force of nature, subdues a fragile human construction.

The music and rigorous sound design fill each scene, complementing and interspersing each other, building the sometimes agitated and sometimes sinister atmosphere, and the sometimes subtle and sometimes frantic rhythm of the animation. It should be noted that João Gonzalez was involved in several production functions, including sound composition, as well as piano performance, and sound design orchestrated by Nuno Lobo. Motion in animation is often economical, and the contrast between the static background and the animated foci, together with the powerful sound design we are talking about, cause great involvement with the scenic representations.

In dealing with the themes, mourning, poverty, and global warming, João Gonzalez reserves a great dramatic charge for the first, inserting the second and third in the condition of inescapable and catastrophic socio-environmental background, which drags the most fragile first.

The 'half' house, far from the city, fragilely crammed into a mountain, sheltering a family that lives 'selling ice' may seem radically fictional, the result of a powerful imagination, and somewhat 'impossible', however it takes us back to the real condition of thousands of people who live on hills and in precarious buildings, subject to collapse and burial every time heavy rains, increasingly violent and disorderly due to global warming, occur.

Just like the ice merchants, impoverished people go down every day from their very precarious homes to the cities to seek their livelihood, selling 'almost nothing', like ice, on the signs and on the doors of schools and companies. They sell candies, popcorn, sweets, fruit, or anything they can replace and start selling again day after day, often facing, in addition to misery, mourning, since police violence and that of criminal groups, the harsh living conditions , in addition to poor access to health, cut lives earlier in the periphery.

The work was not so acclaimed and awarded without reason, it combines technical rigor and excellent execution of the poetic function, tied by the massive presence of the creator João Gonzalez in all aspects of the film, with a moving and engaged social function, bringing to light reflections criticisms on the themes of the struggle for survival in mourning linked to the implacable destructive evil that is the climate imbalance, reminding us of another recent work that also addresses the family drama and poverty in the context of global warming, the South Korean feature Parasites, by Bong Joon-ho, 2019.

It is only understandable to have lost the Oscar, in Los Angeles, if we consider the fact that the winning project, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy and Peter Baynton, have an early involvement and dissemination campaign, which started with the launch of the book that gave rise to the short, in 2019, with more than 500 thousand copies sold in its first year, translated and released around the world, with stunning success. The long and fruitful career of veteran Charlie Mackesky and the lyrical and affective appeal of the film, practically ending a modern self-help fable about the art of making friends, certainly support the decision here, since points such as animation, music and screenplay, although touching in the project of the British cartoonist and author, are, from our point of view, much superior in the project of the Portuguese creator João Gonzalez, still at the beginning of his promising career.

Another aspect that we cannot fail to mention and that exerts a notable influence on a jury such as the Oscars is the contrast between the always positive and elegant message of The Boy, the Fox, the Mole and the Horse with the raw and cold reality of mourning, helplessness, the precariousness of protection and the tragic in the 'natural' catastrophe portrayed in the work of João Gonzalez.

The Portuguese short film is masterful and deserves more than one viewing, as the wealth of meanings used in each scene is such a profusion that a single appreciation is, even if impactful, insufficient for us to decide the meaning of each detail. Reviewing it to write this text, we caught ourselves in a reflection, which we finally share. despite the god ex machina we are talking about, the redemption to which we are raised is provisional, since the two hats subtly descend in the final scene, announcing the material death of the simple ice sellers.

Expectations are high to see what the future holds for this talented filmmaker and the upcoming works that will undoubtedly continue to delight and thrill global audiences. With his undisputed creativity, dedication and talent, João Gonzalez is an exciting promise for cinema, promising to leave a lasting legacy in the film industry and provide viewers with more memorable and emotional moments on the big screen.

*Aurelia Hubner Peixouto is a professor of Portuguese language and Brazilian literature at IFES-Campus Vitória and a doctoral student in design at the Faculty of Design, Technology and Communication at the European University.


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