The Hawks and the Sparrows. Credit: Flickers in Time

Though I’ve long admired the daring and innovative work of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, I must admit his spiky and sometimes shocking films aren’t always comfortable viewing. His 1966 comic fable Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows, screening at Pacific Film Archive at 7 p.m on Saturday, Nov. 5 as part of a Pasolini retrospective that somehow doesn’t include 1975’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom) is the exception that proves the rule: it goes down easy — and may even make you laugh.

A first-time viewing of the film served as my re-introduction to the delightful Totò, perhaps best remembered for his role as a safe-cracking expert in Mario Monicelli’s terrific Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958). Hugely popular in post-war Italy, Totò (born in Naples in 1898) starred in dozens of comedies, most of which remain completely unknown and unavailable to Anglophone cinephiles.

The Hawks and the Sparrows. Credit: Flickers in Time

In The Hawks and the Sparrows he and Pasolini regular (and, ahem, teenage love interest) Ninetto Davoli play a father and son (also named Totò and Ninetto) taking a long, seemingly pointless cross-country walk. They’re joined along the way by a talking crow whose wisdom our innocents abroad immediately take at face value; they soon find themselves thrust into a “story within a story” about two 12th-century monks (also played by Totò and Ninetto) ordered by God to preach the Gospel to the titular critters.

There’s much more to The Hawks and the Sparrows than can be adequately described in this précis, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s unusual opening credits (sung by Domenico Modugno) and Ennio Morricone’s dynamic score. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, if you’re tired of Morricone — in my humble opinion, the greatest composer of the 20th century — you’re tired of life.

Though replete with references to Marx, Mao, and Italian Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, The Hawks and the Sparrows is as far from dry political polemic as it’s possible to get. There are elements of Beckett, Ionescu, and even Richard Lester’s 1959 short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film here. The end result is, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, a cinematic masterpiece.

Town Destroyer. Credit: Roxie Theater

Coming to San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, Nov. 4, Town Destroyer is the latest documentary from local filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman. The film examines the recent controversies surrounding the New Deal-era murals adorning the walls of Babylon-by-the-Bay’s Washington High School.

Painted by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian emigre and student of Diego Rivera, the murals depict the life story of the school’s namesake, who — in addition to helping found the United States and never lying — also dabbled in slavery and genocide. Not for the first time (the film touches on a 1970s effort to come to terms with the murals), Arnautoff’s work struck a nerve with students and parents upset by his depiction of American history.

San Francisco’s school board famously voted to paint over the murals in 2019. Happily, that didn’t happen — the murals were covered for a time, but never destroyed — and some board members were recalled a year later (admittedly as much for the infamous schools renaming project as for this decision). The issue simmers on, though, serving as a reminder of art’s power to subvert, educate and disgust all at the same time.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...