The Hawks and the Sparrows
Uccellacci e uccellini
May 4, 1966 (Milan) — 88 minutes, black & white, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Comedy / Fantasy
Pasolini’s 4th feature, a satirical fable about the wanderings of an elderly man, his ditzy son, and a philosophizing left-wing (pun intended) crow.
FILMS: Shorts and Documentaries | 1. Accattone | 2. Mamma Roma | 3. Gospel According to Saint Matthew | 4. Hawks and Sparrows | 5. Oedipus Rex | 6. Teorema | 7. Porcile | 8. Medea | 9. Decameron | 10. Canterbury Tales | 11. Arabian Nights | 12. Salo.
Let me admit up front that although I find Pasolini a brilliant, provocative, and at times sublime filmmaker, I have a hard time connecting with The Hawks and the Sparrows. I’m not sure if the problem is with me or in the way Pasolini conceptualized the film; perhaps it’s a combination of the two. Let it also be noted that some viewers are passionately devoted to this picture and, like all of Pasolini’s films, it is definitely worth seeing and, if you’re so inclined, pondering.
Maybe “pondering” is a good way to begin talking about it. Although parts of this episodic film are very funny and certain elements work extremely well (as discussed below), overall it feels at once ponderous yet underdeveloped. Pasolini had set out to make an ideological comedy but, as he remarked in a 1968 interview, “perhaps it came out… too ‘ideo-‘ and not ‘comic’ enough.” Still, the film functions primarily as a comedy, although a very dark one, as you can see in the following summary (it is more extensive than usual because the DVD, at the request of the Pasolini Foundation, does not include any chapter titles or access points).
Innocenti Totò (played by Totò) and his son Innocenti Ninetto (Ninetto Davoli), one of his eighteen children (we never see any of the others), amble along a nondescript road somewhere on the outskirts of Rome. They stop at a cafe, and Ninetto joins a group of boys practicing a new line dance. Father and son resume their walk only to stop a bit further along, when Ninetto goes to visit his girlfriend (Rossana Di Rocco), who is dressed as an angel for a pageant, while Totò watches an ambulance hauling off two corpses. Totò and Ninetto then hook up with a talking left-wing (pun intended) crow. The pendantic fowl announces that he comes from the country of Ideology, and we soon learn of his penchant for alluding to the likes of Marx, Brecht, Rossellini, and Mao. He repeatedly asks them where they are going, but they never give a direct answer.
To break the monotony, as all three walk under the blazing sun, the crow tells an extended medieval fable – which Pasolini dramatizes – about Brother Ciccillo (also played by Totò) and Brother Ninetto (Davoli), two high-spirited friars chafing under Saint Francis. He directs them to preach Christian values to the birds, especially “the arrogant hawks and humble sparrows” (that phrase is an absolutely literal translation of the Italian title). Although after months of effort the two succeed in communicating with both species, the big birds still eat the little ones. Saint Francis will not accept that fact, and orders the friars to continue attempting to convert the birds. Back in the present, Totò, Ninetto and the crow find a thatched hut in a field. They stay there until the angry, and poor, owners violently drive them off.
Next we find Totò and Ninetto demanding the rent from a woman (Rosina Moroni) so destitute that day after day she tells her starving children that it is still night. She hopes that they will go back to sleep and not want to eat, since there is no food. Totò and Ninetto ignore her pleas for help. Resuming their walk, father, son and the ever-chatty crow encounter a group of traveling actors, costumed in ancient Roman attire. When the leading lady gives birth in the middle of their show (entitled “How Rome Ruined the World”), Totò tries to shield his son’s eyes, to keep him from any premarital knowledge of sex. Grinning, Ninetto points out that the “foot cream” his father is using is in fact an expired contraceptive. Still with the crow, they next go to the villa of their landlord, called the Engineer (Ricardo Redi), who is hosting the swanky Conference of Dentists for Dante. The landlord treats Totò and son as mercilessly as they had treated the woman tenant. Booted from the villa, the three companions watch the funeral of Togliatti (the highly-successful former leader of the Italian Communist party). Back on a road similar to the one in the first scene, Totò and Ninetto meet a vivacious young woman named Luna (Femi Benussi). Father then son sneaks off into a corn field to have sex with her, to the crow’s chagrin. The two men are now more ravenous than ever, as we move into the final section of the film.
Some of the most effective elements derive from Pasolini’s love for early film comedy. The first image of the film, with Totò and son walking along an endless dusty road, seems to pick up where Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) left off. Totò, one of Italy’s most beloved comedians, brings together two more important elements for Pasolini. His stony yet expressive, and hilarious, face brings to mind both Buster Keaton and, in a surreal kind of way, a bird (and in a film with a title like this one, that means something).
Ninetto Davoli is a perfect foil. He is all laughter and devil-may-care hijinks, injecting the film – which is often set in one form of wasteland or another – with the spirit of youth although, significantly, it is not a spirit of rebellion, but more a last burst of steam being let off before following, literally and otherwise, in his father’s footsteps. One of the most energetic scenes comes at the very beginning, when Ninetto joins a group of other teenage boys practicing a line dance to a sassy pop tune (written by the great film composer Ennio Morricone). Despite the vitality of this de facto musical number, on another level it shows that he is all too eager to conform his own energy to the group, by learning to dance just like everyone else. In Pasolini, as in life, almost everything has multiple, and sometimes paradoxical, meanings. It should be noted that offscreen Ninetto was perhaps the great love of Pasolini’s life; and they always remained very close – making eleven films together – even after Davoli married and became a father.
The film is also filled – though perhaps not enough – with the trappings of silent comedy, including pratfalls, comic chases (one of which ends in leapfrogging), broad gestures and expressions, and more than a little sexual innuendo.
Pasolini’s world provides ample, if often contrived, opportunities for comedy, but it is often of a violent kind, both emotionally and physically, and reminds us more of Theatre of the Absurd than Chaplin and Keaton. Of course, those actor/filmmakers had a profound influence on that seminal Absurdist Samuel Beckett (an artist as prodigiously cultured as Pasolini), whose 1952 masterpiece Waiting for Godot is as inconceivable without Chaplin as The Hawks and the Sparrows is without Beckett. Besides that tradition, its tangled allegorical roots can be seen as a kind of trippy Marxist take on, say, John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian ‘road trip’ fantasy, Pilgrim’s Progress. Absurdism and allegory both revel in their didacticism.
One of the problems I have with this film, despite its many original moments, is that it often feels like Pasolini had sat down with some essays (undoubtedly his own) on Absurdism and Existentialism, and then whipped up some characters and scenes to embody the ideas. Unlike most of Pasolini’s other works, this one does not feel organic. Absurdist playwrights like Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet kept popping into my head. They clearly provided Pasolini with a philosophical blueprint for this picture, with their vision of the harsh ridiculousness of life, as well as their subversive style (including illogical, even fantastical plots) that undercuts both dramatic form and the assumptions of their audience. (The crow mentions Brecht, as any good Marxist would, and in some ways his “alienation effect” is analagous to the distancing strategy of the Absurdists.) The surface of these Absurdist works is often comic, but the humor is drenched with an underlying (Existential) pessimism about the human condition, where we are all cut off from one another, and the universe is seen as ultimately meaningless. Although these ideas seemed minty fresh in high school, and although I still enjoy and admire the authors mentioned above, their vision has since lost its force; and too much of it seems to have trickled down into this film. (As a gay artist, Pasolini might also have felt a certain kinship with the young gay man named Alfred Jarry who invented Theatre of the Absurd in 1896 with his scabrously delightful play King Ubu (a riff on Macbeth), Jean Genet, perhaps even more notorious than Pasolini – and his artistic peer – in such plays as 1956’s The Balcony, would have reminded the filmmaker even more directly of the same-sex dimensions of the Absurdist view.)
Interestingly, Pasolini’s film seems to be simultaneously both a work of Absurdism and a tentative refutation, or at least modification, of its assumptions. It shares with them the basic formal techniques mentioned above; for instance, the form of Totò and son’s journey – like the structure of the film itself – is a giant loop, as they travel around, and around and around, Rome’s “periferia” (periphery). Always moving, but never really getting anywhere: The symbolism is both obvious yet too opaque in how it relates specifically to this film, as opposed to a more general Absurdist view.
Where Pasolini may part company with the Absurdists (depending on how you read the film) is in his focus not so much on cosmic philosophical themes but on the somewhat more down-to-earth conflict between religion and Marxism, which Pasolini saw as the central split in his country (as anyone who has seen his documentary Love Meetings will know).
There is a good deal of dialogue in this film, and the crow has some of the most audacious (which is not necessariliy to say best) lines. When we first meet him, he drones on (I’m mercifully abridging his monologue) about how “my country is Ideology… my parents are Mr. Doubt and Mrs. Conscience… [We] lived at Karl Marx Street number seventy times seven…” That latter phrase is one of Pasolini’s many sly in-jokes, since it refers to his earlier masterpiece The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (not to mention the New Testament), when Jesus tells Peter that we should forgive our brother when he sins against us “not… Until seven times; but, Until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). Here, Pasolini has yoked together Marx and Jesus – which may be ideologically provocative but it’s really not all that funny (and it was intended to be). In case you think Pasolini has suddenly converted from gay Marxist atheist to born-again Catholic, remember that in this film he cast the same young woman, Rossana Di Rocco, who played the angel in The Gospel as a bratty girl now dressed in a threadbare angel costume for a school play (Ninetto says, “You look like an airplane”). At her final appearance she flips him the bird before she recedes into the upper story of a decaying, empty building (in a film which is crawling with – symbolism alert! – a series of ruined buildings surrounded by vacant lots).
As if he were in some kind of ideological/symbolic pissing match with the crow, Totò now tells the little chatterbox where he and his absurdly large family reside: “We’re at Garbageville. Down-and-Out Street. Number 23, below Cesspool Ridge, world-famous for the martyrdom of Saint Illiterate.” If a crow could roll his eyes…. At least we can.
With the vast fund of knowledge at Pasolini’s disposal, we could also see the film as a unique take on one of his favorite poets (Pasolini has himself been called the greatest postwar Italian poet). It is likely not coincidental that the landlord is hosting the well-healed but grotesque Conference of Dentists for Dante. (With its wink to La Dolce Vita, the scene is also intentionally Felliniesque – the filmmakers were friends, and Pasolini even wrote the “street life” scenes in Nights of Cabiria – but then, in Pasolini not even the in-jokes exist on just one level.)
The misadventures of Totò and son could be a Pasolinian update of sections from the Divine Comedy’s Inferno and especially Purgatorio sections; the omnipresent road in this film lies between two areas, Rome and the countryside, as Purgatory lies between hell and heaven. Like the damned souls in hell, and some of the luckier ones in Purgatory (where so many of the world’s great, but not purely-Christian-enough, artists hang out, including Giotto – whom Pasolini played in The Decameron), father and son walk in circles. If they never learn from their mistakes, they’ll remain in a Hell of repetitive alienation; but if they do, and can “Purge” themselves of their ignorant and sinful ways (Pasolini’s conception of “sin” is more sociopolitical than Christian-spiritual), then maybe they can finally catch one of those buses which they’re always missing and get out of wherever they are. (That’s another of the film’s running gags; but with its vague symbolism and not-quite-swift enough pacing, how thematically resonant or even just plain funny is it?) They key to the film’s Dantesque layer may be the crow – about whom Pasolini said “there is almost total identity between me and the crow” – who functions like one of Dante’s guides on his journey through metaphorical, not to mention metaphysical, realms. (In the real world of filmmaking, the bird was a pain in the tailfeathers for Pasolini to work with; it even had the gall to die before the end of the shoot.)
The central symbol is, of course, the one in the title, which Pasolini dramatizes in the lengthy film-within-the-film episode. But what are we to make of the hawks and the sparrows? The title suggests a kind of symbiotic relationship between predator and prey, even as it symbolizes the two great tendencies within Italian culture and, to a lesser degree, within Pasolini himself: Catholicism and Marxism, and the violence which can result when they clash.
Is communication possible between man and bird? Incredibly, and hilariously (in some of the film’s funniest moments), yes. But what about communication between hawks and sparrows? The answer to that comes when a hawk swoops out of the sky and gobbles up a cute little sparrow – to the utter, and hilarious, horror of the two friars. Is Pasolini pointing up the essentially bleak view of humanity shared by Christianity (fallen, sinful man in his pre-Redemptive state) and Marxism (exploited man in his pre-Revolutionary state), with Nature as the culprit?
That is a weighty, and of course important, theme if ever there was one, especially for a comedy (although the Cary Grant character in George Cukor’s gender-bending 1935 comedy, Sylvia Scarlett, has a classic monologue on the subject of “the hawks and the sparrows,” delivered to Katharine Hepburn in boy drag). But which group do the hawks represent, and which the sparrows? Pasolini keeps the ambiguity coming, as he shows how each group contains elements of both victimizer and victim. Paralleling that, we see father and son in a similarly fraught dual role: They victimize the poor woman when trying to collect her rent, and are in turn victimized by their boss, the landlord. That vicious circle connects not only with all of the circular/repetitive elements in this film, but with most of Pasolini’s works, from the beguiling victimizer/victim Accattone in his first film to the stomach-churning debaucheries of his last, Salò (the scatalogical horror there is presaged by the scatalogical humor in this film).
Throughout The Hawks and the Sparrows, Pasolini shows the strengths, weaknesses, and inconsistencies of both ideologies. Basically, the father represents Catholicism, the crow Marxism, and the son is still something of a clean, or rather blank, slate. But despite Ninetto’s youthful ebullience and sharp eye, he seems relatively uninterested in questioning the assumptions and traditions of his world, although the film presents him – and more importantly for Pasolini, each of us viewers – with many situations blatantly showing the absurd, if not necessarily Absurdist, follies of Italian society.
At the end of the film, we see father and son still traipsing along a road which looks like the one where they began. We may recall the portentous, although mercifully tongue-in-cheek, title card from earlier which read, “The road begins and the journey is over. And we may also wonder if now – after their perhaps fateful encounter with the crow – they mght start looking at what makes things tick, and begin to understand the different dimensions (economic, social, political, religious, psychological) of their own benighted condition. The crow predicted that they would (but what does he know?). And even if they do begin looking beneath the surface of things, will the meanings they find – if any – be the same as the ones the crow focused on? Will they be able to combine their intrinsically comic, but powerless, perspective with the crow’s social consciousness? Will it result in their taking action, perhaps even turning them into some kind of revolutionaries? Or are they now ready to fall back into the comforting, but Pasolini would say suffocating and destructive, arms of organized religion – if they can ever get back to their home in Garbageville? Will they find a way out of the loop which separates Rome from the countryside, and world of Nature, beyond? Will they now, finally, be able to catch one of those buses they keeping missing?
At least for me, those are too many questions, and of too monumental a nature, to leave hanging at the end of this picture. Puzzle movies can be stimulating – just think of Peter Greenaway’s best work – but The Hawks and the Sparrows feels both too cerebral yet not nearly well-thought-out enough. Despite some considerable visual flair, Pasolini needed to dramatize and visualize his arguments with more fullness. And although his seemingly-digressive structure gave the narrative momentum, he needed to flesh out his ideas, to embody them in living, breathing people.
He might also have wanted to up the comedy factor considerably. Pasolini himself felt that way, and in fact went on to star Totò and Ninetto Davoli in a wonderfully surreal and funny short film, “The Earth Seen from the Moon” (“La Terra vista dalla Luna,” part of the anthology film, The Witches [La Streghe]). As he once said, in The Hawks and the Sparrows “the ideology was not all absorbed by the story, it had not become transformed into poetry, lightness and grace…. I… regret that I had not made a much lighter and more fabulous film, even a picaresque film which might have been less meaningful ideologically but which would have been more ambiguous and mysterious, more poetic.” Mr. Pasolini, you took some of the words right out of my mouth.
If only he had followed his own lead, which in fact was set in one of the most original and delightful, yet sharp, opening credits sequences I have ever seen – or heard. The credits are sung in the style of a fizzing comic opera aria, in the manner of Rossini. And so many names ending in the highly-vocalizable “i” – Pasolini, Bini, ….Uccellini – are a lyricist’s dream. (One wonders what Pasolini would have thought of his admirer Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Satan’s Brew, a political black comedy directed as if it were an operetta – without anyone singing a note.)
If the comedy of The Hawks and the Sparrows had been even funnier, the film might have had a more visceral impact, making its intriguing political and philosophical points more meaningful. Despite my personal reservations (which are certainly not shared by all of Pasolini’s admirers), I hope that you will watch this picture and see what you think.
- Written and Directed by Pasolini
- Produced by Alfredo Bini
- Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli & Mario Bernardo
- Production Design by Luigi Scaccianoce
- Costumes by Danilo Donati
- Sound by Pietro Ortolani
- Edited by Nino Baragli
- Music by Ennio Morricone
- Songs by Domenico Modugno
- Totò as Innocenti Totò / Brother Cicillo
- Ninetto Davoli as Innocenti Ninetto / Brother Ninetto
- Femi Benussi as Luna
- Ricardo Redi as the Engineer
- Francesco Leonetti as Crow (voice) (uncredited)
There are currently several Pasolini video releases, to own (on DVD and Blu-ray), rent, stream, or borrow from your library, as well as Paolini books. NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate Pasolini link for a purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.
Original 2003 Video Release (Used for This Review)
Water Bearer Films has released a DVD with good image and sound from the best available elements which the DVD box states were “made available through the co-operation of the Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation, Rome.”
Why No Chapter Stops? I checked with the DVD’s distributor, Water Bearer, about why there are are no chapters, i.e., the entire film is presented in one continuous track. This was a condition made by the Pasolini Foundation, which controls the rights to the film, to encourage viewers to watch it in its entirety. (The only other filmmaker who insists on his DVDs being released without chapters is David Lynch.) Chapter stops or not, we owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Water Bearer Films (which specializes in gay & lesbian, international, and silent cinema, as well as filmed plays and musicals) for releasing the DVD of this important part of Pasolini’s cinematic legacy. And yes, their other releases do indeed contain chapter stops.
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.85:1
- Original mono soundtrack
- 30-minute documentary on the filmmaker’s life and works: “Pier Paolo Pasolini: A Film Maker’s Life” directed by Carlo Hayman-Chaffey
- $29.95 suggested retail
Reviewed November 12, 2003 / Revised October 16, 2020