Thursday, May 31, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Hawks and Sparrows)

It is surprising how consistent Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films seem when they are viewed chronologically.  I’d seen Accattone (1961), Mamma Roma (1962), La ricotta (1963), and The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) before starting this project, but seeing them out of order (and intermingled with later, radically different Pasolini films like 1975’s Salo) made them seem like they could hardly be the product of the same filmmaker.  When viewed in the order in which they were made, Pasolini’s early films add up to a coherent and original vision that conflates realistic depictions of Italy’s working class with heady spiritual concerns.  Hawks and Sparrows (1965) continues this trend to a degree, focusing once again on poor characters who are at times presented as modern Christian icons, but it also finds the writer-director dealing with any number of other issues that happened to be on his mind at the time.  The film’s rambling, episodic structure suggests that Pasolini was searching for a new creative direction by throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck.  For better and for worse, Hawks and Sparrows is a transitional project.

Still, Hawks and Sparrows is a particularly eccentric transitional project, and its flamboyantly playful tone is signaled immediately by its unconventional opening credits sequence.  Ennio Morricone’s jolly theme song features an opera singer belting out the name and occupation of virtually every cast and crew member who worked on the film (the name of regular Pasolini producer Alfredo Bini sounds particularly ridiculous in this context).  This enthusiastically preposterous opening primes the viewer for a spastic story that follows an old man (legendary Italian comedian Toto) and his son (Ninetto Davoli) as they travel aimlessly down an empty road.  Eventually the duo is joined by a talking crow (voiced by Francesco Leonetti) that provides a lot of random philosophical musing and social commentary. 

The loose plot seems to exist entirely to support these stray bits of commentary.  This isn’t inherently a problem; Jean-Luc Godard built his entire filmmaking career around rambling, episodic projects that often seemed like excuses to unload whatever thoughts happened to be in his head as he was making them, and many of his films were outstanding.  But Pasolini lacks Godard’s formal inventiveness.  Where the French New Wave master could make a wildly unruly film like Pierrot le fou (1965) seem vital through sheer playful energy, Pasolini has only a few stylistic tricks up his sleeve.  Aside from the typically great use of music (this time it’s all original Morricone material) and the deft, straight-faced handling of the talking bird, there isn’t much of formal interest in Hawks and Sparrows.  The occasional use of comically sped-up footage feels like a lazy return to something that worked better in La ricotta, which would be less of a problem is Pasolini had at least a few other tricks up his sleeve.  The director’s earlier films succeeded because of the clarity of their ideas, while overt stylization seemed like a secondary concern.  Hawks and Sparrows lacks the earlier films’ thematic coherence, and isn’t stylistically interesting enough to make up for it.

Since there is no consistent throughline in Hawks and Sparrows, the movie can only work on a moment to moment basis.  Fortunately, the amusing episodes largely outweigh the tedious ones.  A lengthy aside in which the travelers imagine themselves as Franciscan monks charged with converting a flock of birds to Christianity is a particular highlight, with Toto eventually learning to communicate with the birds through a series of subtitled whistles.  Also memorable is a Fellini-esque sequence in which the protagonists help a rag tag theater group push a car, deliver a baby, and have a fiery party.  Hawks and Sparrows has enough fun, eccentric scenes to be worthwhile, but as a whole it lacks the intelligence and the provocative morality that Pasolini is capable of.

UP NEXT  Oedipus Rex and Medea

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