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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Pier Paolo Pasolini | Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows)


on the road
by Douglas Messerli

Pier Paolo Pasolini (screenplay and director) Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows) / 1966

Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows focuses on his two major—and often at odds—inspirations, his communist political alignment with the Italian poor and his emotional response to his Catholic upbringing.

      The two comic figures, the Italian clown Totò and his equally foolish son, played by Ninetto Davoli. They take to the road, along with a talking raven, exploring the numerous failures of contemporary 1960s Italian society, while the raven narrates a more metaphorical tale of St. Francis Assisi, who assigns the same two (as Brother Ciccillo and Innocenti Ninetto) to discover a way to tell the hawks and the sparrows of God’s love.

      In the religious tale, Brother Ciccillo struggles long and hard to discover how to communicate with the hawks, finally finding a way to share their language, explaining to them the blessing of God and the Church; it is even more difficult to speak with the sparrows, until he accidently discovers that it is not sound but “hopping” that will reveal the truth to them. Yet even after he has miraculously conveyed the message to both, the hawks, by their very nature, continue to kill the sparrows. And Assisi sends them back out to explain that such acts are against the will of God.
      The travelers, soon after, encounter a strange circus group, consisting of the very members of Italian society, homosexuals, blacks, women, and other outsiders—all of whom one might define as “sparrows”—who cannot even get their car moving. Totò and Ninetto briefly attempt to help, but without much success. When a group of chanting men pass by, they quickly dress up in their costumes and began their performances, only to be interrupted as the pregnant woman among their group goes into labor, producing yet another mouth to feed.
      And even the seeming sparrows of the road trip, Totò and Ninetto, temporarily behave as hawks themselves, telling a poor, starving woman and her family, whom they visit, that if she does not immediately pay her rent, they will have to sell her house. The woman has been reduced to cooking bird nests for something eat, becoming another kind of sparrow who destroys her own kind.
     A visit to a richer landowner nearby, who seems to be throwing a Dante convention in his villa, reveals the two travelers, however, in a different light, as he tells them that unless they pay up, he will have to foreclose on their farm. In short, the problem is that the hawks are not so easy to define; sometimes sparrows behave like hawks. 
      The death of the leftist intellectual Palmiro Togliatti, whose funeral is also portrayed in the film, reveals that the message of the left may never be comprehended by either the rich or the poor (the hawks or the sparrows) which will never allow the necessary revolution to take place.
      Certainly nothing seems to “get through” to the two “strange birds” on the road, who one by one ridiculously jump into a field of corn to take advantage of the pleasures a prostitute whom  they encounter. Neither, it is clear, is truly able or responsible enough to even succeed as a farmer. And it is just as clear that they learn absolutely nothing from their voyage.
       Just the like hawks, they kill and eat the talking raven, tired of his political jargon. Italians, so suggests Pasolini, remain in a position of stasis because they can never learn from either their leaders or their own experiences. It is impossible indeed to save a society that does not want saving.
       Despite its bleak premise, however, the film is a joy to watch, especially the dancing, hopping, and flapping Ninetto, who later plays a similar role as a somewhat angelic messenger in Passolini’s Teorema. Evidently, this was the director’s favorite of his own movies.

Los Angeles, June 9, 2016

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