I’ve already seen one film about horse racing this year as part of my project, and it was perfectly likeable, but I wasn’t exactly enthused about getting back in the saddle (sorry). And yet Palio turns out to be one of the best documentaries this year, not to mention entirely gripping, about a sport I retain very little interest in. Partly that’s because the racing itself seems almost a sideline to the personalities, politics and corruption involved — like any good Italian drama, surely? This short race, run twice a year around the main square in Siena, has been going since mediaeval times, and is competed by the city’s 17 districts, each with their own cartoonish name (Wave, Unicorn, Eagle, and the like) complemented by a colourful banner and uniform for their jockey. But it’s those jockeys the film focuses in on, because they embody all the contradictions and drama of the contest. They hold no district affiliations, just a keen desire to ride the victorious horse (a horse can still win even if the rider is thrown). There’s no reward aside from the glory and a ceremonial banner, and the avoidance of a possibly brutal kicking from their district if they lose. But it’s also not a cheap thing to succeed, for it’s a game that rewards those that play it best, making deals, rigging the votes and administering hefty bribes along the way. It’s certainly no secret that this goes on, although the reigning champion, Gigi Bruschelli (a man with a twinkling, sardonic smile), demurs on getting into the details. Instead the director calls on the old-timers to provide commentary, and they clearly hold no love and only grudging respect for Bruschelli, looking instead to a young Sardinian, Giovanni Atzeni, to prevent Bruschelli reaching a record number of wins. It unfolds like a political thriller, and continues to build and provide surprising revelations, but it’s also a fond portrait of a small number of men who speak with passion and eloquence about a sport that from the outside seems bizarre and ridiculous. That said, I can’t let the review go by without mentioning that it’s also a sport that takes its toll not just on the jockeys (whether flung from their steeds and trampled under foot, or attacked brutally by the enflamed crowds) but the horses; the film doesn’t really engage with this directly, although it features a number of the races, shot and edited with a keen sense both of its thrilling speed and incipient danger — there are pile-ups every bit as spectacular as in Formula 1. In a sense this is an issue with horse racing as a whole, and it will never be a favourite amongst animal rights activists, but even within this context the Palio seems particularly tough going. However, as a human drama, Palio is superlative.
Director Cosima Spender; Writers Spender and John Hunt; Cinematographer Stuart Bentley; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 1 October 2015.