Walking through the countryside of Rome, an old man (Totò) and his impish son (Ninetto Davoli) happen across a talking crow (voiced by Franceso Leonetti). Accompanied by the intellectual bird the duo journey from the slums to land occupied by the wealthy, meeting folk from all walks of life, all the while lectured by their feathered friend whose somewhat pompous left-wing views begin to grate on their nerves.
Italy's most beloved comedian, Prince Antonio Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno De Curtis di Bisanzo Gagliardi, or Totò as he was known on stage and screen, was feted in his home country as one of the great artists of the twentieth century in company with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton but little known elsewhere. That was until, near the end of his career, he headlined two films by poet, scholar, filmmaker and intellectual rabble-rouser Pier Paolo Pasolini that finally drew him international acclaim. The last of these was the anthology film Caprice, Italian Style (1967) while the first, more significant work was Uccellacci e uccellini (literally, 'Ugly Birds and Little Birds') known in English as Hawks and Sparrows. Pasolini himself rated this the one film with which he was most satisfied, harking as it did to a Italian classical tradition of surreal satirical comedies and parables.
Mounted as a modern folk tale, Hawks and Sparrows muses on life, death, politics and morality, filtered through Pasolini's undeniably learned if idiosyncratic perspective. With its two tragicomic protagonists waxing philosophical as they bumble into one fine mess after another the film not only evokes classical Latin plays but arguably the work of Samuel Beckett. Playfully abstract with whimsical dialogue, evasive plotting and self-conscious surrealism with opening credits actually sung in mock-operatic fashion by Domenic Mudugno to a score composed by Ennio Morricone, the film is a cinematic beat poem as indeed a lot of international art cinema was at the time. The problem with films like these is that they remain tethered to the sociopolitical concerns of their time and as such emerge as artifacts or curios rather than truly timeless examples of humbler narrative cinema less admired in their day. Hawks and Sparrows enchants and infuriates in equal measure.
By far the most enduring segment is the story-within-a-story were Totò and Ninetto are Medieval monks. On the orders of Saint Francis of Assisi they try to spread the teachings of Christ among the Hawks and Sparrows only to find base nature trumps peace and love. When Saint Francis remarks that inequality among the classes is the greatest threat to world peace the message reflects Pasolini's own Marxist beliefs as much as the true tenets of Christianity. However, the film's political outlook is ambiguous at best. Although presumably the allegorical mouth-piece for the director's left-leaning politics, the raven is presented as pompous, annoying and seemingly deserving of its final ironic fate. Meanwhile Totò is no Chaplinesque "little tramp" stand-in for the common man but a more ambiguous anti-hero. When it transpires the purpose of his journey is to collect rent money from his poverty-stricken tenants, his callous indifference to their plight diminishes him as a sympathetic figure. He eventually learns his lesson when faced with his own landlord. Pasolini presents a dog-eat-dog world arguing persuasively the progress of mankind will be forever impeded unless we move beyond class barriers and exploitation. Yet given the darkly humorous nature of the finale it appears the lesson is lost on our two heroes. Pasolini includes some fast-motion slapstick sequences that prove lively though not necessarily funny along with an excerpt of news footage from the funeral of Palmiro Togliatti, long-time leader of the Italian Communist Party, further contextualizing his parable. Hope for a brighter future eventually arises when the travellers help a stranded troop of actors, including a pregnant woman who gives birth in the middle of a performance, and beautiful future giallo starlet Femi Benussi as a happy hooker named Luna who puts the twinkle back in Totò's eye.