Anyone curious about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s work should seek out his engaging The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966) on DVD or streaming. It’s the work of a filmmaker who’s still able to make his points with humor (which is to say, more effectively), whereas, in contrast, his later Salo (1975) is so extreme as to be a self-negating screed. (Salo plays Saturday, Sept. 7 at Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre. More info.)
The Hawks and the Sparrows has so much energy and curiosity that you could mistake it for Pasolini’s directing debut; the opening scenes in particular have the digressive quality often found in first films, wherein the filmmaker seems to be trying to cram as much of the real world as possible into the movie. And the technique is occasionally so ramshackle that it might come as a surprise to learn that Pasolini had been making films for five years by this point.
The loose, offhand quality is also part of the movie’s light touch, and also a big part of its appeal. For while The Hawks and the Sparrows could be dubbed a Marxist fable, it’s by no means a rant. You could even call it gently Marxist, if that’s not an oxymoron.
After some disarming opening credits, which are sung (an idea more people should adopt) and full of self-deprecating wit, Pasolini opens on Totò, a 60-ish Everyman (played by Italian comedian Totò) and his irrepressible teenage son Ninetto (Ninetto Davoli), walking along a desolate open road somewhere outside Rome. As Totò and Ninetto encounter a variety of comic types on the road, the scenario is like a Spanish picaresque adapted to 1960s Italy.
The episodic story is hit and miss — the best material is front-loaded into the first 45 minutes, and the movie falters after that. But there’s a surprising amount of poetry, both visual and verbal, in Pasolini’s herky-jerky, semi-improvisatory approach.
The movie proper kicks off when Totò and Ninetto stop in at a roadside tavern. Ninetto encounters a group of young dudes earnestly practicing dance moves while waiting for the school bus. The ensuing dance sequence is so odd and unexpected that it’s like something out of a dream: Pasolini cranks up the Ennio Morricone instrumental (“Scuola di ballo al sole”) on the soundtrack, and the piece is instantly stirring, like a more pop version of one of Morricone’s classic spaghetti-western themes. You’d want to dance too, if you heard a surf-rock guitar this irresistible coming out of nowhere. The scene is such a paradigm of offhand 1960s cool that I’m surprised no one’s swiped from it for a TV commercial. (To hear the Morricone track, click here.)
The Hawks and the Sparrows settles down to business, sort of, when Totò and Ninetto encounter a talking crow alongside the highway. The easygoing Ninetto accepts the crow more readily than his father, who presses the crow for some bona fides. The crow responds:
I come from far away. My country is ideology. I live in the capital, the city of the future, on Karl Marx Street.
A deadpan intertitle later helpfully explains that, “For those in doubt, the crow is a left-wing intellectual.”
No ordinary talking crow, the Professor, as he is known, is disarmingly erudite. As he accompanies Totò and Ninetto on their march through a barren exurb, he relates a fable about two monks in the 12th century, and Pasolini cuts to show us Totò and Ninetto as the monks: St. Francis bestows a mission on them to evangelize to the sparrows and the hawks in the countryside.
Rife with all sorts of buffoonery, the fable that the crow tells is the best, most pointed part of The Hawks and the Sparrows. Back in the present day, a segment where Totò and Ninetto encounter a troupe of circus performers plays like filler. Somewhere in here Pasolini also inserts cinéma-vérité footage from the funeral procession of a Communist politician in Rome; I didn’t know what I was watching until I read up on the movie afterward. Ultimately Totò and Ninetto continue on their journey, having learned precisely nothing from their various misadventures, despite the crow’s best efforts to enlighten them.
Pasolini is anything but didactic with this story. A remarkable amount of the movie is given over to clowning, which is only appropriate, given that the director has a pair of first-rate clowns with his lead actors. Sixteen-year-old Ninetto Davoli had never acted before Pasolini offered him the role of the son, and you can tell — though you can also see why Pasolini cast him. His performance mainly consists of skipping along and beaming at the camera, and his sunny, guileless presence adds considerably to the movie’s spirit of youthful vitality.
English-language reviews of The Hawks and the Sparrows invariably describe the performer Totò as “the great Totò,” and it’s no wonder — the actor brings a graceful comic touch to his body language in every scene, and the more slapstick moments make clear that even well into his 60s he’s still a master of physical comedy. With his innate dignity and sad, knowing eyes, Totò makes for a sympathetic, beleaguered Everyman, such that at the end of the film, my head might be with the Professor, but my heart lies with Totò.
Watch a wonderful Italian-language trailer for The Hawks and the Sparrows here: