Funny Peculiar: Pasolini’s The Hawks And The Sparrows (1966) – Masters of Cinema DVD review
Pasolini’s comedy is an acquired taste – specifically, that rare subset of folk who can count Italian politics and The Benny Hill Show amongst their passions.
The Hawks And The Sparrows
(Pier Paolo PasolinI, 1966)
The Hawks And The Sparrows is a comedy. Specifically, it’s exactly the kind of comedy you’d expect from Pier Paolo Pasolini, the controversial militant of Italian art-house cinema. So for all the whimsically charming, freewheeling exuberance at work….there is also the bludgeoning deadweight of Pasolini’s hectoring, didactic views on politics and poverty.
The plot – such as is – sees a father (Toto, the Italian answer to Chaplin) and his son Ninetto (Ninetto Davoli: imagine De Niro reinvented as a cheeky chappy) embark on a road trip in the company of a talking, left-wing raven (an actual raven). This unlikely interloper regales them with the central parable that gives the film its name, in which two 13th century monks are tasked with teaching the word of God to the hawks and the sparrows. Afterwards, the ramifications of that story seep into the men’s episodic encounters with businessmen and slum tenants, in which they variously play hawk or sparrow in the predatory world of rough-hewn, ultra-poor 1960s Italy.
If that sounds more funny peculiar than funny ha ha, you’re on the right lines. This is as bitterly angry an assault on 1960s attitudes as fellow Marxist Jean-Luc Godard would make the next year in Weekend, but where that film nailed the savage, Swiftian satire required to address the world’s problems, Pasolini opts for the broad, vulgar approach. Sometimes, the decision to play to Toto’s fanbase with self-consciously humorous devices works – notably the opening credits, sung opera-style to Ennio Morricone’s jaunty score. At other times, the speeded-up footage as Toto and Ninetto scamper about miming bird movement makes this look like a precursor to The Benny Hill Show.
Yes, it looks and sounds amazing: the credits are a Who’s Who of Italian talent during the 1960s, and Pasolini’s signature style suits the oddness. His eye for actors is sublime, with the craggy Toto developing a smart double-act with the fresh-faced Davoli, forever peeking over his screen father’s hat in mischief at his next adventure. The landscapes of decrepit slum housing, half-built roads (and, in the medieval flashbacks, abandoned castles) are extraordinary and evocative. The audacious tracking shots, as the men converse with the raven: a marvel of on-screen animal acting. And Pasolini’s blunt, abrasive editing throws up disconcerting, challenging juxtapositions, especially in the Godard-esque captions commenting on the action.
Sadly, though, the satire is at once too obvious – Pasolini is as blunt as Bunuel was subtle in proving Church and state – and too obtuse: a working knowledge of 1960s Italian politics is probably a must, given that it took Wikipedia to reveal that the real-life funeral which Pasolini dwells on at length was that of Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti. As much as there is to admire in the director’s refusal to be pigeonholed, and the range of cinematic ideas on display, the substance simply isn’t there. Compared to other films of its era, there’s too much sparrow and not enough hawk. Ironically, his later comedy Pigsty (alongside which this is being released by Masters Of Cinema) would veer too far in the other direction.