DVD Review: Pasolini’s Hawks and Sparrows (1966) and Pigsty (1969)
Review by Keri O’Shea
I think it’s fair to say that, if you’re a regular visitor to Brutal as Hell, then you probably mainly know director Pier Paolo Pasolini for his last film, Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom. Despite having almost nothing to do with the horror genre (because, come on, it really doesn’t) Salò continues to enjoy a solid reputation amongst genre film fans, its reputation as the go-to movie for on-screen excess still intact come what may. However, Salò really isn’t all that representative of Pasolini’s earlier work. The aggression and shock tactics he was ready to use in 1975 have some precedents, but generally, films like Hawks and Sparrows and Pigsty are a long way away from his most notorious project…
Hawks and Sparrows (Uccellacci e uccellini) is a picaresque; a father and son (played by comic hero Totò and Ninetto Davoli respectively) are wandering on the outskirts of Rome, contemplating life, death, and similar weighty topics when…they encounter a crow. Nothing so unusual about that, except this is a talking crow. A left-wing intellectual talking crow. Together with the bird, they continue their debates on religion as they go, with Mr. Raven offering an anecdote from the 13th century which he thinks will be of interest. The telling of the story transports father and son into said century. Now they are two monks, who have been bidden by their abbot to go forth and preach the word of God to both hawks (‘the proud’) and sparrows (‘the meek’). They take this edict very literally, and try to commune with nature to fulfil it. Meanwhile, life in their century goes on – it’s a world of slums, loan sharks, and an Italy struggling to claw itself into the modern day.
This isn’t a great movie, truth be told. It’s very low on action and plot whilst its languid, dreamlike pace wasn’t for me; there was also the issue of the film’s comedy elements. Pasolini himself said that some audiences laughed a great deal and some didn’t; I’m in the ‘didn’t’ camp, and this was underlined by the amount of uproarious mirth on screen which I never shared in. There were some lunatic touches which offered moments of physical comedy (show me the person who doesn’t laugh at an old woman being beaten over the head with a sheaf of wheat by a monk) but by and large, this film didn’t land with me. Too abstruse, too self-conscious. Where it is interesting, however, is in the glimpses of a modernising, but poor Italy, having a debate with itself (through the characters) about class politics and religion. Pasolini has a superb eye for framing shots and the contrast between wide open spaces and the tumbledown tenements of the urbanising areas looks wonderful.
Although very different from Hawks and Sparrows, Pigsty (Porcile) also runs two tales in different time periods, but the atmosphere here is much darker and more ominous. The voice-over which talks of cannibalism and generational angst soon gives way to a desolate landscape inhabited by (almost) mute savages, ever hungry (even for human flesh) and watchful. This soundless world is conflated with scenes from 60s Germany, and a privileged young couple called Julian and Ida. Ida tries continually to provoke Julian with her verbal sparring but it seems he is uninterested in her; eventually he admits he is in love, but not with her. Soon after this revelation he falls into a cataleptic state (hey, we’ve all had conversations like that). Ida and his family try to understand why this has happened – and the revelation, when it does come, might make them wish they hadn’t.
Heavy on the allegory, Pigsty has much to say about modern society as a wasteland, and of even the most bourgeois of folk as being little more than beasts, but these political messages in the film make for a very difficult film to watch. The huge contrasts between the silence of the savages’ world and the interminable dialogue of the bourgeois is grating; in communicating ‘the message’ of Pigsty, Pasolini makes his characters repetitive, petty and unnatural. He himself calls the film ‘experimental'; personally, my tolerance for experimental cinema is rather low. Again, there are some flashes of action, even brutality in Pigsty, but the general torpor of the movie is its main feature. Whilst I’m not a massive fan of Salò, I’ll say this for it: it’s never boring.
Where I absolutely can’t fault these films, though, is in how they have been presented by Masters of Cinema. The transfer of each film (Hawks and Sparrows being in black and white, Pigsty in colour) is impeccably done, with rich blacks, bright whites without any ugly glare, and crisp colours. Likewise, the sound quality is excellent and the dialogue is very clear. Each release is also accompanied by a lavish booklet: these are well-researched and interesting, containing essays, interviews, viewing notes and liner art.
So, if you’re a Pasolini completist, interested in the history of film, or if you simply want to see what else this director worked on before his best-known project, then these releases might have something to offer. Otherwise, these movies are, to be blunt, a challenge, and won’t be all that accessible to most film fans – or at least, they certainly weren’t to this one…
Hawks and Sparrows and Pigsty are released on DVD as part of the Masters of Cinema series on 23rd July 2012.