×

Film Review: ‘The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily’

Noted illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti’s feature debut is classic animation at its best, but the adaptation of the original children’s book opens itself up to problematic interpretation.

Director:
Lorenzo Mattotti
With:
Toni Servillo, Antonio Albanese, Linda Caridi

Running time: 81 MIN.

A classic Italian children’s book from 1945 gets an update in master illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti’s feature debut, “The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily.” Beautifully drawn with bold colors and appealing shapes, the film’s style is classic animation at its best, clear and pleasing, calculated to charm children and adults alike. The revised storyline, however, about how bears and humans clash, make amends, and then realize they’re too different to live together, can lead to unfortunate and inadvertent interpretations neither Mattotti nor the original author Dino Buzzati intended. In addition, the narrative’s pace, whizzing by from one scene to the next, frustrates an adult’s desire to relish the often-striking images, making the film most suitable for kids incapable of critically engaging with metaphor.

“The Bears’ Famous Invasion” first appeared in print toward the end of World War 2, written and illustrated by the multi-talented Buzzati, whose novel “The Tartar Steppe” was adapted by Valerio Zurlini for his 1976 masterpiece “The Desert of the Tartars.” As usual with children’s stories created by intellectuals (think Jean de Brunhoff’s “Babar” and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince”), the book was ripe for interpretation: Was it saying that mankind had become so venal and corrupted that there’s no redemption? Was it a specifically political metaphor, creating an opposition between communists (the bears) and capitalists (the humans)? Given the way the world has changed in three-quarters of a century, what’s the message now, and is there a danger of it being misinterpreted?

Mattotti and his fellow screenwriters made numerous changes to the storyline, largely to streamline the plot and make it more suitable to a feature-length narrative film. They’ve added a framing structure in the form of an itinerant showman, Gedeone (Antonio Albanese), and his young assistant Almerina (Linda Caridi), who seek shelter from the winter cold in a cave, and accidentally awaken an old hibernating bear (Andrea Camilleri). To ensure he remains friendly, Gedeone and Almerina entertain him with a story from long ago, before bears (apart from this one) disappeared completely from Sicily.

Popular on Variety

Back then, bears lived in the woods guided by their king Leonzio (Toni Servillo). When his son Tonio (Alberto Boubakar Malanchino) gets swept down the river and captured by humans, Leonzio’s grief is overwhelming and he neglects his duties as leader. Winter sneaks up on the bears before they’ve had a chance to store up food, so it’s proposed they go to the town where they can eat and look for Tonio. The nasty Grand Duke (Corrado Invernizzi) assumes it’s an invasion and sets his troops against the bears, who are temporarily helped by the ruler’s sycophantic wizard De Ambrosiis (Maurizio Lombardi) after the Grand Duke abuses him once too often.

The battle scenes are enchanting, as in the moment when packs of wild boars suddenly turn into balloons and float away, or later when the bears send enormous snowballs down a series of cliffs, each scene beautifully imagined in primary colors. Ultimately, Tonio is found in a circus, the Grand Duke is overthrown, and bears and humans live harmoniously with Leonzio as the King of Sicily. Concord is short-lived however, as some of the bears become corrupted by the worst of human traits and the animals return to the forest: After all, bears are bears and men are men, and mixing only leads to strife.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: separate but equal? For Americans, the concept has an unfortunate ring, redolent of segregation. In addition, given the heinous rhetoric coming from anti-immigration politicians in Europe as well as the U.S., the notion of “invaders” entering a city, intermingling, and then leaving en masse (resulting in a bear-less Sicily) has ill-timed connotations. This certainly wasn’t Mattotti’s intent; indeed, it’s likely his idea was to show the damaging nature of humans in relation to their environment, implying that though some people are good, the bad ones have an infectious effect that’s best isolated. Yet given the opportunity for misinterpretation, it’s a shame the filmmakers didn’t find a way of reworking the story to ensure the taint of anti-immigration rhetoric couldn’t be applied to what’s designed as a children’s tale.

Though this is Mattotti’s first feature film, he’s justly celebrated for his inventive illustrations, which include scores of memorable covers for The New Yorker magazine, as well as posters, comics, illustrated books, and a short film featured in the animated omnibus “Fear(s) of the Dark.” The pictorial concept of “Bears” is unmistakably his own, with diverse influences ranging from Renaissance painting to Expressionism and De Chirico (the latter also an important influence on Buzzati’s work). Unfussy shapes in warm colors have a delightful rhythmic flow while holding their own equally well as frame grabs. Eliminating a few scenes and elongating others would have allowed for a deeper appreciation of the imaginative visual treats.

Film Review: 'The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 21, 2019 (also in Annecy, competing). Running time: 81 MIN. (Original titles: “La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia,” “La fameuse invasion des ours en Sicile”)

Production: (Animation – Italy-France) A BiM (in Italy), Pathé (in France) release of a Prima Linea Prods. presentation of a Prima Linea Prods., France 3 Cinéma, Pathé, Indigo Film with Rai Cinema production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Ciné Plus, France Télévisions. (Int'l sales: Pathé Int'l, Paris.) Producers: Valérie Schermann, Christophe Jankovic. Co-producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori, Ardavan Safaee.

Crew: Director: Lorenzo Mattotti. Screenplay: Thomas Bidegain, Jean-Luc Fromental, Lorenzo Mattotti, based on the novel "La Famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia" by Dino Buzzati. Graphic design: Mattotti. Editor: Sophie Reine. Music: René Aubry. Animation: Julien Dexant, Laurent Kircher, Jean-Christophe Lie, Antoni Mengual-Llobet.

With: Toni Servillo, Antonio Albanese, Linda Caridi, Maurizio Lombardi, Corrado Invernizzi, Alberto Boubakar Malanchino, Beppe Chierici, Roberto Ciufoli, Nicola Rignanese, Mino Caprio, Corrado Guzzanti, Andrea Camilleri. (Italian dialogue)

More Film

  • LizzoAustin City Limits Music Festival, Weekend

    NAACP Winners List 2020: Updating Live

    The 51st annual NAACP Awards, hosted by Anthony Anderson, are currently underway in Los Angeles. Angela Bassett, Billy Porter, Lizzo, Regina King and Tyler Perry are competing for entertainer of the year. On Friday night, early winners were announced, including “Just Mercy,” which picked up the award for best ensemble in a motion picture. OWN’s [...]

  • The Salt of Tears

    'The Salt of Tears': Film Review

    Handsome twentysomething Luc is a trainee joiner, a craft inherited from his doting single dad: a man at once proud of his son’s continuation of their trade, and hopeful that he’ll do something greater with it. When Luc asks his father if he ever wanted to design furniture rather than simply build it, the reply [...]

  • Time to Hunt

    'Time to Hunt': Film Review

    As context for those unaware, South Korea does not have the equivalent of the United States’ Second Amendment. Instead, the country enforces strict gun control — privately owned weapons must be stored at the police station — and fatal shootings hardly ever happen there. That’s important to know when watching Korean movies: It explains why [...]

  • SF Studios, Cinematic Inc. Join Forces

    SF Studios, Cinematic Inc. Join Forces on 'Comet in Moominland,' 'When the Doves Disappeared,' 'Omerta'

    SF Studios is joining forces with Antti J. Jokinen’s leading Finnish production banner Cinematic Inc. to develop and produce the animated feature “Comet in Moominland” and “When the Doves Disappeared,” adapted from Sofi Oksanen’s bestseller. “Comet in Moominland” and “When the Doves Disappeared” are being made by both companies as part of a five-picture deal. [...]

  • Tiger Rising

    Exclusive First Look: 'The Tiger Rising' Starring Queen Latifah

    Queen Latifah and Madalen Mills star in Ray Giarratana’s “The Tiger Rising.” The drama is based on Kate DiCamillo’s New York Times Bestselling children’s book and produced by Deborah Giarratana and Ryan Donnell Smith.  Highland Film Group is handling worldwide sales, which are under at the European Film Market in Berlin. The Tiger Rising” is [...]

  • The Berlinale Bear is Seen in

    Berlinale Enlivened by Anti-Chile State Violence Protests

    A politically charged Berlin Film Festival was further enlivened on the third day of the European Film Market by a demonstration targeting Chilean armed forces. On Saturday, the Martin Gropius Bau, the site of the EFM, saw a group of anonymous protestors unfurl a big banner from one of the market’s upper floors, with activists [...]

  • Vadim Perelman, Ilja Zofin, Lars Eidinger

    'Persian Lessons' Eidinger, Perelman Say Film Offers Parallels for Today

    Director Vadim Perelman and frequent Berlinale film star Lars Eidinger on Saturday championed their new Holocaust-set “Persian Lessons” as a timely, very German tale of how that dark history is closer to us than it seems, made uniquely possible by the fact that most of the film’s production team is not German. The film’s world [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content