The Palio horse race held biannually in the Piazza del Campo of the beautiful Italian city of Siena is the exotic subject of Cosima Spender’s documentary, which plays like a classic sports drama thanks to its memorable central characters. While the races, which go back hundreds of years, last no more than 90 seconds each, Palio packs enough intrigue into its proceedings to practically fuel a miniseries. Receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, the film should find appreciative audiences in much the same way as the racing documentary Senna, a previous effort from its co-producer James Gay-Rees.
The filmmaker clearly lucked out with her canny decision to concentrate on two of the race’s principal jockeys: the cocky 46-year-old veteran Gigi Bruschelli, who’s 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, wildly ambitious upstart Giovanni Atzeni, who was trained by Bruschelli and now hopes to defeat his former mentor.
The races themselves, which attract some 70,000 viewers to the packed square, are apparently a hotbed of intrigue. Described by one commentator as a “game of legitimate corruption,” it features contenders from 10 of the city’s districts, with bribery and secret deals endemic to the proceedings. To say that the city’s denizens take the races seriously is an understatement, as evidenced by clips of several jockeys being viciously beaten by bystanders after losing; some have even been murdered. Potential competing horses are often rejected for being either too slow or too fast: “They’re looking for mediocrity,” one jockey comments.
Among the more colorful facts revealed: riderless horses can win the race, and have done so on nearly two dozen occasions; and the jockeys are allowed to whip each other with stretched, dried ox penises.
But it’s the contestants who are the film’s main attraction. Bruschelli, a controversial figure known for his strategic skills, comments at one point, “Everyone has expectations of me,” before quickly adding, “Me and my colleagues, I mean.”
The similarly egotistical Atzeni points out about his rival that “he’s at the end of his career and I’m at the beginning.” Apparently recognizing his indiscretion, he immediately instructs the filmmaker to “cut that.”
Equally memorable is the vainglorious, record-holding Aceto, who has no compunction about sharing his often acerbic observations. Seen at one social gathering, he announces, “I’m used to sitting at the head of the table.”
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Providing more sober, thoughtful comments is the retired Silvano Vigni, once Aceto’s arch-rival and now a contented farmer, who is openly critical about the way the races are run and who provides fascinating historical context about how the Palio has changed over the years.
We’re also introduced to Atzeni’s father, who seems to hold little enthusiasm for his son’s avocation.
“I would have preferred him to get two degrees,” he ruefully admits.
Featuring thrilling footage of the two races held during the summer the film was shot, Palio benefits greatly from the inherent drama of their outcomes, which will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say that a Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t have come up with anything better.
Director: Cosima Spender
Screenwriters: Cosima Spender, John Hunt
Producers: John Hunt, James Gay-Rees
Executive producer: Francesco Melzi D’Eril
Director of photography: Stuart Bentley
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Composer: Alex Heffes
Not rated, 90 minutes