The Palio is a horse race that’s been held in the Italian city of Siena since 1656. Twice each year in the summer, the 14 districts of the city pick horses and hire jockeys to represent them. The riders dash around the square for 90 mad seconds while the crowds watching from the ground and the windows cheer them on. Some horses skid into walls during a sloped right-angle turn, others slip and tumble and bring bodies down with them in a pile. Only first place matters.
And the race is just part of the intrigue.
Palio is a documentary shot and edited with the verve of a narrative thriller. It’s exhilarating, it’s exhausting; spiked everywhere with ancient history, colorful local yarns, and the myths of conquering heroes. Director Cosima Spender has crafted a sports movie by way of Spaghetti westerns, and yet it’s so much more. There are multiple surprises nested in this Sienese tradition, and there’s rarely if ever a lull in the action.
Director: Cosima Spender
Release Date: April 18, 2015 (Tribeca)
The primary focus of Palio isn’t the personality of the districts but rather the men who ride the races. The jockeys have no allegiance to anyone but themselves, we’re told. Many are out-of-towners. They’re mercenaries working for the highest bidder, and they’re hired to ride a horse that’s picked in a draft process rather than a horse they might have worked with in the off-season. There’s a love/hate relationship between the jockeys and the people. When a jockey wins a race, they are glorified. When a jockey loses, crowds get crazy. Spender shares archival footage of a losing Palio jockey pulled to the ground, dragged, and absolutely brutalized by rabid spectators.
Jockey Andrea Degortes, nicknamed Aceto, won 14 Palios from 1965 to 1992. He’s a larger-than-life figure, all machismo and swagger for the brief moments of screentime he has. Yet despite victories, he recounts on camera a single loss that caused him to go into hiding. He legitimately feared for his life.
There’s a tale of generations in Palio. Gigi Bruschelli is one of the more dominant jockeys in action. He’s won 12 Palios and wants to tie and unseat Aceto’s record while he’s still able. (Though if you ask Aceto, Bruschelli’s only won 11.) There’s also a younger jockey, Giovanni Atzeni, whose promise seems limitless. The older jockeys and fans swap stories, and they still have the same arguments they had in the past. Each subject we spend time with is involving in their own way.
There’s also a tale of backroom drama in Palio, and it’s presented with a sense of conspiracy. Spender catches implications of bribes and other shady dealings for strategic advantage. District rivalries are played against each other, last-second deals might be cut at the crucial point before a race starts. When asked about some of his more questionable methods, Bruschelli smiles like a good mercenary to deflect and conceal.
Palio is constructed so viewers can experience the strange beauty of ritual. While we don’t get the full scope of the pageantry, we hear the district names called out—unicorn, giraffe, she-wolf, tower, wave, seashell. The districts wear their colors and sing their songs. The hooves rumble and thunder thanks to the expert sound design. We watch jockeys hoisted in the air as a swell of an Ennio Morricone score elevates the rider to the state of gunslinger, warrior, gladiator. We even catch a glimpse of a special contraption that picks the starting line order at random. Spender presents the object with equal parts majesty and mystery so that the inner mechanisms at play retain their potential for magic.
These rules and these images are like something out of an Italo Calvino story, so charming, so fascinating, such a feast of ideas. And like a Calvino story, I can’t wait to revisit Palio for its craft and the excitement it inspires.
For more information on Palio and to find out about screenings/tickets for the Tribeca Film Festival, click here.