Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1966
Starring: Totò, Ninetto Davoli
Totò and his son Ninetto travel around the Roman countryside, having adventures until they meet with a wise crow. He tells them the story of two friars, Ciccillo and Ninetto, who are tasked by St. Francis to teach a message of love to the nearby hawks and sparrows. A frustrating task, they manage to communicate to the two bird species separately, but can’t convince them to love each other. After the crow is finished his story, he tags along on Totò and Ninetto’s journey through the country, where they have run ins with some violent men, a poor family, actors, and more.
Literally meaning Ugly Birds and Little Birds, this difficult comic parable was allegedly Pasolini’s own favorite among his films, but will likely divide viewers. This is essentially a tale of inherently innocent, naive characters caught up between Marxist (as represented by the crow) and Christian ideals. Nearly all of Pasolini’s early films — Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and even the documentary Love Meetings — reflects this debate and contains religious themes. The Hawks and Sparrows would serve as something of a warm, humorous farewell to that as Pasolini moved on to more mythic films after this. Like those early works, this is also one of his last films where the majority of the characters are poor or working class, another theme that obsessed Pasolini’s early years.
There are a number of things that I genuinely loved about Hawks and Sparrows. For starters, there’s an excellent, whimsical score from Ennio Morricone, which includes the film’s hilarious opening song. Vocalist Domenico Modugno sings the credits — including all the names of everyone involved — as they roll across the screen. While the humor is a little difficult — in the sense that I think some of it is topical and language-based — the first half of the film is funny and endearing with some physical comedy that seems to be borrowed from Chaplin. It’s hard to even look at Totò, one of Italy’s most beloved comic actors, and not be absolutely warmed down to my toes. He has a fabulous presence in everything I’ve seen and he’s great here.
His son is played by Ninetto Davoli, a teenage non-professional actor in his first-ever role. He’s also surprisingly strong in the film and went on to be the great love of Pasolini’s life. Though they only had a sexual relationship for a few years and Davoli eventually got married, he was Pasolini’s frequent companion until the director’s death nine years later. Maybe it’s just Totò’s finesse, but they have wonderful chemistry together — and also with the stuffy, pedantic crow. The latter actually turns out to be a delightful character and I wish I saw more of that in life action films (sans the CGI, please). Totò and Ninetto also appear in the framing story and the tale of two frustrated monks, who are the film’s most charming characters.
In a strange way, it reminded me of a much more whimsical version of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal Fando and Lis (1968), which concerns a couple on a series of terrifying, humorous, and erotic adventures. Both films have an episodic feel — The Hawks and Sparrows follows the father and son past encounters like a field of young men dancing, a woman giving birth, the father demanding money from a very poor woman, and through a field where they’re shot at — and both have very Dantesque references to Hell and existential torment.
But like Salò, the film’s intellectualism is self-conscious and it sometimes gets in the way. I can’t really decide if this is something I should recommend or not — you’ll love it, hate it, or maybe have no idea what’s going on — but if a moral parable in the form of an intellectual, absurdist comedy sounds up your alley, then definitely pick up the Masters of Cinema DVD. And if you think you can resist Totò, then you haven’t seen him in action yet. Like Leonard Nimoy, he’s the pretend grandfather that everyone wishes they had.