Italian artist and illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti makes his film debut with this 2019 animation, The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily (la Fameuse Invasion des Ours en Sicile) that is based on the 1940 children’s book,The Tartar Steppe, by novelist Dino Buzzati.
The film starts with the image of two strolling players, Almerina and Geodene, trudging tired and hungry through the snow. When they find shelter in a cave, they encounter an elderly bear before his annual hibernation. To appease him, and avoid possibly being eaten, the pair start to do what they do best – tell stories.
What unfolds is the narration of the tale that is the film’s title told from a human perspective. It is set in a strangely mountainous Sicily that looks familiar as a shape on the map but with the only recognisable part being a Volcano on its east coast and, later in the film, the island’s ubiquitous prickly pears appearance with a generic image of a Mediterranean town. This Sicily is inhabited by bears and humans and at the start of the story the two live quite separately.
When Léonce, King of the Bears, loses his son Tonio while teaching him to catch fish, he is disconsolate, resulting in his weirdly all male subjects becoming neglected and in need of food. In extremis, they head for their human neighbours to seek help but get a different reception from the Bears’ expectation. Instead of being given food they become cannon fodder.
At the end of the tale, a different version is narrated from the Bears’ perspective. Here, the Bears are more successful as they find that Tonio has been captured and has become a circus performer for the entertainment of humans led by the cruel Grand Duc who slays Tonio during a high wire performance. The shocked human audience, comprising both sexes, encourages de Ambrosiis, the court magician, to use his very last spell to save the young bear. After this selfless act, and the demise of the Grand Duc, he becomes a hero and a saviour in the harmonious land ruled by bears but shared by humans – a time known as the Age of Honey. With shades of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the idyllic state doesn’t last when corruption takes a seat at the contented table.
The animations have a geometric look with the chiselled features of the bears and the angular shapes of the ruling human figures and soldiers. It is filled with gorgeous lighting and is full of deceptively simple visually clean lines most evident in its sweeping monobloc vistas that are marched by monolithic armies. Within that, swirls the stunning and seriously scary sea serpent and well as the innkeeper Troll who morphs to a monstrous Marmoset.
The film’s voice cast comprises an impressive list of actors who deliver the dialogue in clearly enunciated French.
The film’s allegories are both tricky and a bit troubling to place with the film’s ending leaving the viewer with a sense of being cheated, making it a curious fairy tale.