Power. Pressure. Passion. These three words are used in the trailer for Palio, the feature documentary about the fabled 700-year-old horse race that takes place each summer in Siena, Italy. For the jockeys who risk their lives in the quest to be victorious it’s about all of these things, but it’s also about pride and politics. Director Cosima Spender takes the audience beyond the crowds of the Piazza del Campo to reveal the true drama behind this medieval tradition in a film that skillfully dissects the complexity of the competition from the inside out.
As one retired jockey states, “The Palio is a game, not a race.” The insinuation is that the strategy that drives the result of the Palio has less to do with the expertise of the rider or the speed of the horse than it does with money, alliances and clandestine agreements. When the film opens, Gigi Bruschelli is the dominating champion of 13 Palios – a feat that stretches credibility, given the brutal “win at all costs” mentality that takes over on the track. However, he is not the jockey with the most wins; the record is 15 wins by a single jockey, and Bruschelli is determined to crush that. His protégé, Giovanni Atzeni, has ambitions of his own: he has raced in 18 Palios, but has only won twice. The tensions between the former mentor and mentee begin to rise as the stakes get ever higher in the days leading up to the July race, ultimately reaching maximum intensity before the final race in August.
Spender takes care to create a thorough 360-degree perspective for the viewer by featuring virtually every key figure with a vested interest in the outcome of the Palio. In addition to Bruschelli and Atzeni, he captures insights from various retired jockeys-turned-coaches, breeders and district politicians. Taking a meticulous approach serves the story well, strongly illustrating the depth and scope of corruption that exists within the event. Another very interesting angle is the role of Siena’s citizens. A Palio victory brings honor not only to the jockey and horse, but to the district he rides for. Victors are worshiped and adored, but losers are reviled and often beaten by the crowds for their failure to achieve glory.
With so many layers and angles to consider, Palio’s greatest success is how it deftly carries the viewer through constant hairpin turns, both visually and narratively, toward a stunning conclusion that leaves the audience invigorated and satisfied.
Palio does not yet have a confirmed date of release.