Cosima Spender's Palio
New documentary about the Palio de Siena horse race fuses the best of Seabiscuit with the violence of The Sopranos. Produced by Senna and Amy director James Gay-Rees, new film Palio tells the ancient story of an Italian medieval contest of gargantuan proportions.
The Palio horse race in Siena is the oldest in the world. Politics and sport may not be perfect bedfellows, but in the microcosm of the palisade they rein supreme – more than just a race, the Palio is a high-stakes battleground where none are incorruptible. As limp bodies are hurled from horseback into stone walls, mafioso types on the sidelines of the palisade share knowing glances or embraces, and following the race, horses are paraded through the streets of Siena followed by hoards of chanting marios.
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Cosima Spender's film hones in on a group of four riders, men who view the antiquarian contest through rose-tinted glasses, with a mutual gladiatorial pride for their role in this ancient and brutal tradition. We're repeatedly led to wonder what would possess them to take part in this barbaric ceremony – when the dangers are so clear and so present.
The riders are viewed as disposable and oft despised, seen as mercenaries with no loyalty to the area to which they are assigned. They are vilified – in many cases these are the true victims of the race. They can be killed at the hands of the crowd itself, or by the hooves of their steeds. None are beyond suspicion, and all are without reproach.
What Spender's Palio exemplifies is a growing dichotomy between a new breed of rider – Giovanni Atzeni – who rides not for the purse but for the pride of the principality to which he represents – and the older riders who look at the race with purely machiavellian eyes.
From the older squabbling rivals to the Palio de Siena's brutal mafioso mastermind, Gigi Bruschelli, the depictions of all the rider highlights the fact that here there are no villains, merely egos and heroes. Bruschelli has worked out the politics of the race, and courts the favour of the richest people of Siena in order to engineer himself a win at any cost.
Access to the inner sanctum of corruption is restricted, and what the film achieves most successfully is to observe rather than condemn the practice of bribery, leaving opinion up to its viewers.
Yet like all machismo, however exciting and testosterone-fuelled, this show of bravado does grate with our sensibilities and ultimately, when spread thin, leaves us feeling as unfulfilled and alienated as the jockeys themselves. At the same time il Palio di Siena reminds us of the insatiable blood lust we all share, which, in many western sports, has been tempered and neutered through regulation or common sense, leaving us wondering whether our true motivations for watching are the blood and the glory.
Repeatedly shocking, comic and exhilarating, the new Palio documentary is a snapshot of a race that time forgot. Spender's film creates a sense that this ancient tradition will outlive all these riders, captured with great detail and grace.
|What||Palio film review|
|Where||Bertha Dochouse, The Brunswick, London, WC1N 1AW | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
On 25 Sep 15, Film Screening and Director Q&A, 6.20pm
|Price||£9 (£7 Concessions)|
|Website||Click here to go to the Dochouse website for booking|