Hawks and Sparrows Review
This July sees Masters of Cinema add another two Pasolini titles to their catalogue. Both Hawks and Sparrows and Pigsty could be said to be political ‘comedies’. The latter, made in 1969 but based in part on a 1966 stage play by its director, nowadays looks like a dry run for Salò. With a starry cast list headed up by Jean-Pierre Léaud and the then-wife of Jean-Luc Godard, Anne Wiazemsky, it took pot-shots at the ‘revolutionary’ cinema for the late sixties whilst offering up a starker, angrier and more transgressive alternate to this brand of filmmaking. Hawks and Sparrows, though still in possession of a keenly subversive spirit, opted for a more playful approach.
Pasolini nails down the tone in the opening sequence. Rather than go for a conventional titles plus score intro, he instead has the credits entirely sung to the catchy accompaniment of Ennio Morricone. (You can hear a little in the Italian theatrical trailer, included at the foot of this review.) Furthermore, the ‘lyrics’ provide their own little commentary: Pasolini and producer Alberto Bini have “risked their reputation” to make this picture, we are told, whilst our lead actor, Totò, is credited as “the wacky Totò, the human Totò, the mad Totò, the sweet Totò.”
English-speaking audiences would most likely have been unaware of Totò. The only film of his to have crossed their paths would have been Mario Monicelli’s crime caper Big Deal on Madonna Street, although Totò’s presence amounted to a mere cameo. However, in Italy he was one of the country’s biggest clowns/comedians, perhaps the biggest. He was their Chaplin, a regular on Italian cinema screens in the post-war era and oftentimes with his name in the title. There was Totò Tarzan, Totò e Cleopatra, Totò d’Arabia and so forth. When colour was introduced to Italian cinema it was in, naturally, Totò in Colour. And so his appearance in a Pasolini film was, of course, something to take notice of - had Pasolini gone mainstream or was the actor moving, albeit belatedly, into the arthouse? The fact that this would also be Totò’s final feature (he died of a heart attack a month before its premiere at Cannes) no doubt enhanced the attention.
Of course Pasolini hadn’t gone mainstream but was, as so often with his handling big stars, making use of what Totò represented. Just as Mamma Roma traded on the presence of Anna Magnani or Pasolini’s section of the anthology film RoGoPaG tellingly cast Orson Welles as ‘The Director’, so too Hawks and Sparrows is quite consciously playing with Totò’s popularity. Indeed, who better to play a proletariat everyman than the actor who resonated with this section of society so strongly? He stars, as he so often had, as a character named Totò who, in this instance, walks the backstreets and the countryside of Rome with his teenaged son in tow (played by Ninetto Davoli in his first credited appearance for Pasolini). Their journey has no beginning or end, but instead takes on a symbolic role, underlining both the newfound wealth of Italy during ‘il boom’ as well as its hidden poverty. It is also there to facilitate the meetings between Totò and Davoli and those they encounter along the way.
Chief among those they meet is a talking crow. He tells them a story of two monks from the 13th century - played, again, by our two principle actors - who are ordered to convert both “the arrogant hawks” and “the humble sparrows” to the Christian cause. It takes them some time, but eventually they prove successful in their task. However, the divisions between the two - one preys on the other, after all - cannot be healed despite their mutual belief system. Once the crow has concluded his story an intertitle informs us that he is a “left-wing intellectual of the era preceding Palmiro Togliatti’s death”. Toward the end of Hawks and Sparrows we also see archive footage of Togliatti’s funeral in 1964, though little context is otherwise given. (Togliatti was the leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1927 until his death.)
Perhaps we should have guessed it from Totò’s presence, but such instances suggest that Hawks and Sparrows will mean a great deal more to an Italian audience than it will an international one. Forty-five years later it may also be true that its topicality creates an even greater sense of specificity. That’s not to say that only those with a working knowledge of Italian politics during the late sixties will get anything out of the film. The episodic nature of Hawks and Sparrows - and its attendant scattershot approach - is such that Pasolini throws in a great deal, with the humour oftentimes being as broad as it is pointed. But it does play a significant part and that needs to be taken into account, especially by newcomers to the director.
When Channel 4 ran a six-film Pasolini season in 1995 (my first encounter with his work and an excellent introduction) Hawks and Sparrows was the very last to be screened. The vast majority of his work is now available on disc in the UK (including an impressive number on Blu-ray) and so I recommend that those newcomers do likewise. Sample Accattone first, or The Gospel According to Matthew, or Theorem. In comparison Hawks and Sparrows is a second-tier work - plenty to appreciate and admire, but there is much better to sample beforehand.
Hawks and Sparrows was first issued onto disc in the UK as part of the now out of print Tartan boxed-set, Pasolini Vol. 2. (Before then it had been released on VHS as part of the BFI’s Connoisseur label.) As with the other films on that collection - Oedipus Rex and Pigsty - it is now getting the Masters of Cinema make-over. In this case that means a DVD-only release in the NTSC format encoded for Region 2 and accompanied by the original Italian trailer plus the typically meaty MoC booklet.
As with Pigsty, Masters of Cinema have deemed the HD master used for Hawks and Sparrows as not quite good enough to justify a Blu-ray release. Watching the film it is, as with Pigsty, easy to see their point. Whilst clean throughout there are fluctuations in the softness of the image from shot to shot. At times the clarity is excellent, other times it is only so-so, with the average being such that a potential Blu-ray would likely catch some flack as a result. With that said the DVD copes more than ably with the materials to hand and certainly doesn’t compound any issues. Another excellent transfer from the label. Needless to say the original aspect ratio is in place, as is the original Italian mono soundtrack, with English subtitles being optional.
On-disc extras are limited to the original Italian theatrical trailer, with the real meat to be found in the booklet. Here Pasquale Iannone provides a new essay, plus there are reprints of two pieces written by Pasolini himself. One comes from 1969 and an interview with Oswald Stack on the subject of Hawks and Sparrows. The other from 1974, another interview (newly translated by Iannone), this time talking about Totò and what his particular brand of cinema represented.