Director: Cosima Spender
Major Players: Gigi Bruschelli, Giovanni Atenzi, as themselves
Out Of Five: Four
In the heat of July and August every year, the Italian city of Siena turns into a seething battle ground. At stake is pride and money, all fuelled by gallons of machismo. The Palio is the oldest horserace in the world, a spectacular tourist attraction, but of much deeper significance to the Sienese and Cosima Spender’s documentary on the subject arrives on DVD this Monday.
The first modern Palio took place in July 1659, with the August event added in 1701, but it’s a very different animal to the proverbial sport of kings. It takes place in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, the sand covered track constructed on the outside with a mass of spectators in the centre. Whether those in the middle of the crowd can actually see anything is open to question: there’s no sign of any periscopes.
There’s ten horses in the race, each one representing a district of the city, so there’s massive civic pride at stake. But, despite all the outward trappings of fair play – the horses and their jockeys being chosen randomly, together with their position in the starting line-up – everybody acknowledges the race is full of intrigue and, put bluntly, corruption. Director Cosima Spender was brought up in the city, which means she was able to open more doors than most but in one particular moment she’s told that there’s another layer to the Palio, a secret one – and she can’t go any further.
The documentary’s narrative follows the two Palios of 2013 and features the rivalry between two jockeys. Gigi Bruschelli is a legend, having won 13 Palios in 16 years. He will do anything to win, especially as he’s just two victories away from the world record, and he has a fearsome reputation. Not just as a jockey, but for accepting large sums of money, doing deals with other riders and engaging in any other shenanigans that will further his cause. He may be relaxed and smiling in front of the camera for the interviews, but watch his face and eyes when he’s among the other jockeys, preparing for the race. Nothing gets past him.
Against him, ironically, is his former apprentice, Giovanni Atenzi, who’s never won a Palio but is fiercely single-minded about becoming number one. He’s not tarnished with the same level of corruption as Gigi, nor does he come across as anything like as arrogant: instead, he’s quietly spoken and from a poor family. When asked if he regards Giovanni as a hero, one of his relatives says he would have been happier if he’d got a couple of degrees instead.
Spender’s camera takes us behind the scenes of the race, the training beforehand and the rituals that lead up to the Palios themselves, places that most visitors would never get to see. One jockey even races round the track before one of the races, wearing a camera to give an immediate impression of what it’s like to take part. Of course, in the actual race, there’s no sign of jockeys wearing cameras. Given the physical contact they engage in throughout the circuits, viciously beating each other with their whips (apparently made from the stretched penis of an ox), it’s no surprise. The races are vicious, almost primitive, and make pounding centrepieces to the film, providing a white knuckle ride round the piazza, with its sharp corners and minimal protection for spectators, riders or horses. Although the origins of the Palio are medieval games, it’s impossible not to look at it and think of a chariot race.
At a time when corruption in sport is hardly ever out of the headlines, Palio’s release, earlier in the year in cinemas and now on DVD, is timely. The jockey’s horsemanship appears to play a minor role in winning the race, with more importance placed on strategy, bribery and side deals. Yet the one thing that the jockeys and participants interviewed for the film hardly ever mention is the horses themselves, the single aspect of the race that all the corruption cannot control. They are just a means to an end.
Horse lovers may find the film hard to take, as there are some distressing shots, and the races themselves are brutal to the point of unhinged. The crowds cheering on their district are equally frenetic and it all adds up to an intriguing insight into an extraordinary spectacle. One that still maintains an almost sinister secrecy.
Palio is released on DVD on Monday, 9 November and will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 12 November.