Unarguably one of Italian cinema’s greatest ever film directors and a child of the post-war neorealist movement, Pier Paolo Pasolini gets the Masters of Cinema treatment this week with the release of both Pigsty (Porcile, 1969) and the ever-enjoyable Hawks and Sparrows (Uccellacci e uccellini, 1966). A Chaucer-esque tale of life, death and conversing birds, Pasolini’s divine farce bubbles with satirical wit and vigour. Starring Totò, one of the great Italian comic actors of the age, alongside Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli, the film follows a wandering father and son double act as they wonder through the Italian countryside.
Accompanied early on in their travels by a talking raven, the pair are regaled with the tale of two wayward monks (Totò and Davoli once again) who devote their lives to spreading the word of God to first the ‘arrogant’ hawks, and then the ‘humble’ sparrows. Utilising a somewhat bizarre, yet relatively simplistic central premise, Pasolini creates himself a platform to quizzically explore the great paradoxes inherent within such monolithic social structures as politics and religion. Despite being taught about the word of God, nature remains red in tooth and claw, much to the disgust of the two monks. Enter St. Francis of Assisi, who explains that such abhorrent acts will continue on Earth until the sinful are taught otherwise.
Hawks and Sparrows is a film preoccupied with base animalistic impulses, best illustrated by the spontaneous, free-wheeling Nino (Davoli). Consistently chasing skirt first and worrying about consequences later, he is himself at points struck by bouts of existential angst, to which his father once retorts: “Life’s nothing – death’s a lot”. Taking the role of spiritual guide/familiar, the raven (a self-proclaimed ‘left-wing intellectual’ who refers to himself as ‘ideology’) attempts to reverse the dynamic of men speaking to birds, only to meet his own untimely end.
Astute yet knowingly asinine, Pasolini’s Hawks and Sparrows feels like a breath of fresh air when compared to some of the drearier, yet no less significant work of neorealist titans such as De Sica, Rossellini and Visctonti. Those put off this most intriguing of Italian directors by the horrors of Salò (1975) would be well-advised to seek out this Masters of Cinema rerelease, if only to see a different side to the filmmaker-poet.