“The Palio is a game, not a race” more than one participant observes in Cosima Spender’s documentary – and the name of that game is “legitimate corruption”. On 2nd July and 16th August, Il Campo’s central piazza in the Italian city of Siena is transformed into a race track for the biannual old-age horse race: the Palio. The city’s denizens cheer as jockeys ride bareback around the tight, near-rectilinear corners, while money changes hands to give one district advantage over another. It is ritual and tradition that dictates here. Spender’s Palio shines a light on the arcane unknown to demystify a sport dominated by corruption.
The documentary follows two of the race’s principal jockeys – the arrogant 46-year-old veteran Gigi Bruschelli, who has won 13 Palios in 16 years and is vying to break the record currently held by the retired Andrea Degortes, known as “Aceto”, and the 29-year-old protégé Giovanni Atzeni, who now hopes to defeat his former mentor. The trajectory of the jockeys makes the composition of Palio feel more like a scripted film than a factual report. Spender has cleverly allowed the commentaries and footage to serve as backdrops to a dramatic rivalry between two men. In turn, the audience’s interest never strays.
Spender constantly reminds the viewer that the Palio doesn’t work like one thinks. The propulsive editing of the race sequences gives tracking shots of horse and jockey with the background out of focus. But it is what awaits in the background that becomes the driving force for the competitors. The winning jockeys are venerated and the losing jockeys treated like traitors. Spender visually captures the historic obsession with the summer horse race as she shares archival footage of a losing jockey pulled to the ground, dragged, and brutalised by crazed bystanders. The meticulous sound design and score create a claustrophobic environment that represents the life and traditions of the residents of Siena. The sole moments of audio without dialogue create an intensity that complements the frenetic images on screen.
Palio doesn’t spare the viewer from the disturbing. But it doesn’t spare one from the beauty either. It is the beauty, the romance and the corruption that makes the oldest horse race in the world a perfect microcosm of Italy itself. Spender’s documentary is at once a tribute to the culture surrounding it and also an indictment of it.
Palio is released nationwide on 25th September 2015.
Watch the trailer for Palio here: