Luas Novas: João Gonzalez
November 13, 2023

From one film to the next in João Gonazalez’s still short filmography, we can detect constants and progressions. The former consist in an immediately recognisable style, the latter allow us to analyse a narrative and thematic evolution. On a formal level, the first thing that draws our attention is the economical use of resources: a reduced colour palette of few tones dominated, at its centre, by red; use of animation limited to just a few objects in the frame, while all others remain fixed — an effect through which the exterior urban setting of The Voyager, the décor in the boat cabin of Nestor, and the environment of the steep mountain slope of Ice Merchants all contrast with the mobility of their human characters, emphasising to the extreme their nature as obstacles to be overcome; and omissions that allow us to eliminate certain ways forward.

Shots, by turn, are all very short and the editing relies systematically on the “Kuleshov effect”. On a narrative plane, the three films all feature characters with some kind of defect: a fear of the urban environment — the soaring buildings, the throngs of city-dwellers — which reaches the level of agoraphobia in The Voyager (the film ends with the sound of a door being locked by the main character); an obsession with keeping objects in place on a boat, despite its incessant lurching on the ocean waves in Nestor; or the nostalgia for the woman/mother whose coffee mug, carefully preserved, bears witness to absence, loss and the absurd acquisition of hats on the daily mountain descents of Ice Merchants. Nevertheless, we observe a clear evolution from film to film, which can be broadly described as a transition from realism to symbolism, from the psychological to the allegorical.

The Voyager, revolving around close-up shots of its main character, encourages the viewer to share in his phobia, to project themselves into the protagonist. This also occurs in Nestor, though now the setting has become symbolic: the sea waves are a figurative expression of the idea of instability the character is trying, in vain, to oppose; the boat itself is unrealistic, looking more like a tower than a ship. Finally, in Ice Merchants, the surreal cabin nailed into the cliff has a distancing effect — almost Brechtian — on the viewer and their perspective on the tale being told.

As a result, in this latter film all elements take on a metaphorical meaning: the hanging abode indicates the precarity of the human condition, the melting ice evokes global warming, the selling of ice suggests the absurdity of a money-driven society, and even the daily hat purchases seem, at first, to satirise our consumerist impulses. The film “lifts off” when the hats, carried away by the wind — or by the simple movement of the air as the characters, father and son, fall — unite and embrace each other, taking on, in close-up, the lead role in the narrative and revealing themselves as more expressive than the humans. The final fall, without a parachute, holds the key to the metaphor: the fallen hats have formed a mountain of their own, a kind of safety net, and have taken on a worth of the order of love — the woman’s ghost, like a guardian angel, comes to slow their fall — and salvation. What seemed most absurd and gratuitous comes to reveal itself, in the end, as the most important and meaningful detail.

The film achieves a notable blend of realist elements (ropes, motorbike, money transactions) and symbolic elements (ice, hats, the abyss). Perhaps it is this double game of realism/symbolism that characterises the films of João Gonzalez on both narrative and formal planes. They are realistic enough to activate processes of projection-identification in the viewer, and symbolic enough to give the viewer the certainty of a meaning to be interpreted and a lesson to be taken in. The films’ endings are never totally clear: will the voyager’s neighbour leave him provisions to ensure his survival? Will the damage caused by the storm be repaired or not, and what will Nestor become? What will happen to the father and son miraculously saved after their plummet, and what business — given they are “traders” — will they be able to set up next?

Among different forms of art, hand-drawn animation must be one of the most time- and labour-intensive — from 8 to 25 drawings per second depending on the speed and movements being depicted — though it also requires very few material resources: lightbox, drawing paper, pencil. It implies extreme narrative focus. The short film (indeed, very short) is its natural format. Since he also devises and composes his films’ soundtracks and songs, João Gonzalez has been able to concentrate his fairy tales into just a few minutes, with the rhythm of the music determining the editing. Portugal does not lack talented makers of animated film — from Abi Feijó and Regina Pessoa to David Doutel and Vasco Sá, Laura Gonçalves and Alexandra Ramires (limiting myself to names of people who work in Porto and I know personally, since the list could be much longer and I’m not a specialist in the area) — but unfortunately their films are usually only shown in specialist festivals or in one-off screenings. Batalha Centro de Cinema could, and indeed should, organise a regular programme dedicated to animated film.


Doutorado em Cinema e Pedagogia pela Universidade de Provence (França), Serge Abramovici (Saguenail) lecionou Língua Francesa, Pedagogia, Literatura e Cinema na UM, na ESMAE, na ESAP e na FLUP. É autor de meia centena de livros (poesia, ficção, ensaio) e de uma vasta filmografia (mais de 40 títulos, alguns em parceria com Regina Guimarães). Fundou a revista A Grande Ilusão e a associação Os Filhos de Lumière. Foi programador do ciclo O Sabor do Cinema, no Museu de Serralves (2002–2013). Atualmente, anima o programa Literama e Cinetura. É membro-fundador do Centro Mário Dionísio/Casa da Achada.

Batalha Centro de Cinema

Praça da Batalha, 47
4000-101 Porto

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FS The Voyager + Nestor + Ice Merchants: SaguenailFS The Voyager + Nestor + Ice Merchants: SaguenailFS The Voyager + Nestor + Ice Merchants: SaguenailFS The Voyager + Nestor + Ice Merchants: Saguenail

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