Star – Siena, Italy
Genre – Documentary
Run Time – 91 minutes
Certificate – 12
Country – Italy
Amazon – £8.99 DVD
Awards – Wins 1& 6 Nominations
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The ‘Palio’ is short for the Palio di Siena, that amazingly colorful and passionate bareback Italian horse race you see in tourist programs and movies (Quantum of Solace) where they race around the ancient square of Siena, Italy. Like the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona or the La Tomitino Festival in Bunol near Valencia, outsiders know little about the history and reason for the macho festivals but just want the colorful photo. The history of the Palio, and the fact it’s anything but a horse race, make for an entertaining, revealing and passionate documentary here.
Two races a year are held in Sienna and the whole year geared up towards them. They have been raced since medieval times and serious stuff. The people of Siena are born in one of 17 contradas (districts) of the city, brought up in their contrada, love and marry in their contrada and buried in their contrada. Grudges, conflicts, obscenities and vendettas are common between the districts. The Palio race involves 10 of the 17 districts through a process of lottery and elimination and that’s where the democracy ends. There is no prize money but a lot of serious money is spent on the race by the districts to decide the winner, and often in nefarious ways, like bribes, bent jockeys, ambition and violence. It’s the only horse race in the word where a jockeyless horse can win the race. The only prize is tribal civic pride. The horses are the only innocents in the Palio and many killed or maimed, something the film doesn’t want to talk about.
Jockeys can cost up to €200,000 (£145,000) per race. One guy had a lead weight thrown at his back during a warm-up race by the baying crowd. (Jockeys are routinely frisked before the Palio to ensure they are not carrying a weapon.). Even when a contrada has secured the best jockey there is no guarantee that he will attempt to win the race for them. The contrada that has the most money that year to spend on the race and bribes, and we are talking millions of Euro here, tends to win the race. Jockeys are protected by three ‘captains’ as the race nears and people from all the contrade coming to make deals with them all year round to help them out in the race. This may simply be by helping to block another rider in the race or it could be to throw the race. The jockeys are both revered and despised in equal measure.
The narrative for the film is the rivalry between the two top jockeys in the race with the old legends bickering on the sides saying how much tougher the race was in their day, plus some youngsters coming through to show how passionate the kids are about their contrada and the race. It’s pretty full on in the town. You can only imagine the sexual gratification the winning jockeys are offered after the fevered race by girls and boys alike.
The star is 13 times winner Gigi Bruschelli, nearing that age where the new guy coming through is ready to defrone him. Gigi needs one more for the all-time record of 14, set by the great ‘Ageto’, whilst young and dashing Giovanni Atzeni has won twice and getting better every year, trained by Bruschelli. Gigi is a ruthless but personable jockey and thorough in rigging the race so he wins every year and why his contrada pays him so well and why he lives so well with the beautiful wife and kids. But the jockeys can choose which team to race for and don’t know which horse they will get until the lottery some four days before the race and so capacious when it matters.
The system is rigged, so the only way to win is to be more devious and corrupt than your opponents, a motto for Italy, perhaps. Gigi knows all about that and confident as race one nears on July 1st. But, don't for one minute assumes anyone in Siena wants the race cleaned up, quips a contributor to the film with a glint in his eye. The intrigue and Machiavellian maneuvering is very much part of it and talking points for the fish wives and gossips a plenty. In Siena, rules are there to be bent and people who do it well are admired, and that coming from the town mayor!
Gigi and Atzeni eye each other up behind the rope as lots are draw just before the start to decide where the horses will line up. We are told the last and drawn tenth horse can take as long as it likes to go to post, a delaying tactic used to unsettle rival teams looking to win, and costs up to 70,000 Euros in the back pocket to get the last jockey in to do it, sacrificing his chances. This being Italy women are not allowed in the race. But when the rope goes down there is only one guy out there who ants to win it as the horses and colorful jockeys dressed like court jesters roar into the first corner, likely to be thrown off and into the columns and boards if they get it wrong, or if a rival horse and jockey slam them into it.
The film is understandably intoxicated and dazzled by the multi-colored spectacle on offer, it's under no illusions as to the insidious corruption and insane brutality unleashed on the path to the prize. Issues like animal welfare are surprisingly ignored by female director Cosima Spender as rival jockeys whip rival horses, and their own, with barbarous intent. The corners are tight and the track is narrow and if a horse goes down it’s not pretty. 50 horses have died since 1970. It’s grim for jockeys to and, as I said, if it looks like a rider has thrown the race they can be attacked on the course by their contrada, archive footage showing one such beating.
Palio plays out like a classic sports drama thanks to its memorable central characters and tension packed build up to the race. It would have been nice to learn more about the corruption as that stuff seemed fascinating but you can’t help but be wowed by the color and spectacle of the race itself, thousands jammed into the center of the square and hanging from every conceivable viewing point to witness the passionate spectacular. It’s not hard work as far as subtitles go and doesn’t mess around. If you can find this in Blue Ray then it’s a must. I would fully recommend it to foreign and regular film fans alike and surprised it wasn’t nominated for the 2016 Oscars. It’s really enjoyable and informative and the race footage as spectacular as it looks in the photos and on TV.
Imdb.com – 7.5/10.0 (564votes)
Rottentomatos.com – 100% critic’s approval
Metacritic.com – 73% critic’s approval
Scene International –‘A rare kind of documentary -- muscular and refined, and a splendour for the eyes’.
New York Times –‘Despite its oversights, the film - shot and scored beautifully - is an enthusiastic introduction to this delirious event and its peposo of passion, style and intrigue’.
Variety –‘As dramatically satisfying as the most crowd-pleasing scripted sports saga’.
Village Voice –‘While Spender spends enough time with both new and retired jockey legends to collect a gold mine of macho, bullheaded rapport, you wish she delved deeper into the more sinister, behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings’.
National Enquirer –‘Palio is an exciting documentary, though I'd have liked it more if it had paid some attention to those who have leveled charges of animal cruelty against the race. If it stops short of being a tourist promotion, it's only by a nose’
Movie Talk –‘To the uninitiated, Siena's Palio is simply a horse race in fancy dress... Spender's fascinating documentary gives us an insider's view of the passions that sustain the eight-centuries-old contest and the devious scheming that goes on behind the scenes’.