Uccellacci e Uccellini
DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini
FEATURING: Totò, Ninetto Davoli
PLOT: A wandering father and son meet a talking raven on the road.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It is, indeed, quite weird, with Totò and his young companion passing from one absurd scenario to another as they walk down life’s metaphorically dusty path. The main problem with the movie, however, is that it seems very much a product of its time and place: which is to say, not merely the 1960s, but Italy in the mid-1960s, and not merely 1960s Italy but 1960s Italy as seen through the eyes of leftist intellectuals of that period. For all its supposedly timeless and mystical talk about class and religion, I’m not sure this movie has traveled well in its long journey to our era.
COMMENTS: Casting the famous clown Totò (the Italian equivalent of France’s Jacques Tati or Hollywood’s Charlie Chaplin) as an amoral bourgeois tramp in a nonlinear Marxist/Surrealist adventure may have been a coup and a stroke of genius in 1966, but it’s a move that doesn’t register with a modern international audience—jokes lose their force when they have to be explained via a footnote. Similarly, it’s sort of funny when, in the middle of the movie, intertitles pretentiously inform us that the talking raven represents “a ‘left-wing intellectual'”; but then they confuse us by adding “…of the era preceding Palmiro Tagliatti’s death.” Who wants to have to pause the DVD to jump on Wikipedia and discover that Tagliatti was the head of the Italian Communist party from 1927-1964? (You can see his portrait in footage from his funeral that Pasolini splices in at random at the end of The Hawks and the Sparrows). Much of the flighty Hawks seems like an in-joke made for people who are long dead now, which is a bit of a shame, because Pasolini’s pair of clowns do encounter some universal themes on their journey from and to nowhere. The meat of the movie is a flashback to the time of St. Francis, who tasks Fra. Totò and apprentice with bringing the Gospel to the “arrogant” hawks and the “humble” sparrows. Against all odds, through months of prayer and chirping and hopping about, the monks appear to accomplish the feat, only to watch a bitter punchline undo all their good work. The movie feels complete at this point, but there are still 45 minutes to go, so Totò and son return to the modern world, where they get involved in various land disputes as both the exploiters and the exploited, and join up with a wandering carnival for a while before ending up by competing for the affections of a roadside slut. The movie’s messages are encased in the candy shell of Totò’s slapstick, with lots of mugging for the camera, absurd little dances, and sped-up chase scenes. Pasolini’s parable seems, at first, to prophesy that Marxist ideas of equality will eventually triumph and bring about the ancient Christian vision of the brotherhood of man that the Church has failed to achieve in centuries of work. But, given the the raven’s final hopeless failure to convert Totò and son, perhaps he isn’t so naïve about equality’s prospects in this bird-eat-bird world.
I must confess to having a personal disaffinity for the works of Pasolini; it’s hard to explain why. To me, he always seems like an intellectual who has turned to cinema, not a natural born filmmaker. One of his movies is even entitled Theorem, for God’s sake. The irrational came naturally to directors like Luis Buñuel or Andrei Tarkovsky, but when Pasolini wants to fly beyond reason, I always see his wings straining. He’s still a huge figure in cinema, and something of his deserves to be on the List of the weirdest movies ever made, but what?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: