The Palio is the oldest horse race in the world, run in the central piazza of the beautiful Italian city of Siena. Preceded by much pageantry, it is a full throttle affair, encapsulating Italian society and the ‘system’ in which it operates, in a microcosm.
Run twice a year, every summer, it offers the residents of Siena’s various districts a chance to claim bragging rights in the city.
Palio is a documentary which focuses on the 2013 and 2014 Palios and the intense rivalry between both rival districts and race jockeys, alike.
Gigi Bruschelli is the corrupt veteran of the race and the prime scalp that all others seek to dislodge. Giovanni Atzeni is his once trainee; a gifted, twenty-eight year old, level-headed prodigy and pretender to Bruschelli’s throne.
These two, amongst others, go head to head in a bid to be crowned champion, pitting experienced know-how against youthful determination.
If rivalries between two legendary, retired champions of yesteryear are anything to go by, there’s certainly no love loss between the Palio’s jockeys. With their outspoken re-writing of history, tensions continue to simmer between them in largely comedic fashion, many years after they’ve hung up their caps and whips. Their passion for the Palio, like everyone else’s, seems undimmed by the passage of time.
It’s a very well put together account, which, much like recent documentaries Amy and Senna, steers away from the conventional talking heads type of delivery, opting instead for largely incidental commentary, giving the film a free, less structured feel to it and a strong sense of authenticity.
Sadly, the saying: “and don’t spare the horses” has never been more appropriate, with eleven or twelve of them careering around the perilous piazza track, jockey whips flailing about wildly as both horses and jockeys are subjected to their leathery justice in ferocious fashion.
We only have to think of the Spanish Running of the Bulls or the Shearing of the Beasts to realise that human beings, the world over, seem only too willing to hold dear to archaic traditions that have scant regard for the well being of animals and The Palio, admittedly to a lesser extent, is no exception.
This whip-cracking, thunderous romp around a sharp-cornered, dusty track, preceded by the vociferous chanting of proud inhabitants of Lupa, Eagle, Porcupine and other assorted districts, whilst being an admittedly impressive spectacle, is just another example of disregard for animal life and the fact that the tone of the film is so overwhelmingly reverential, just leaves me cold.
‘Rocky on horseback’ they say?
Well, perhaps, but the prevailing sentiment remains.
On another level, The Palio is essentially silly little boys games taken way too seriously, never summed up more than when the church gets involved, going so far as to bless the winning horse and rider in the Cathedral itself; all the while, surrounded by a massed, frenzied crowd.
If we can manage to disassociate ourselves for a moment from any such negativity that surrounds Palio (and I do appreciate that that is in itself a subjective thing), as a pure spectacle of raw human passion and tub-thumping pride, it takes some beating and it’s understandable how locals and tourists alike can get swept up in its frenzy of thrills and spills each summer.
It also says a lot that a really well crafted film, beautifully shot and edited and awash with a glorious, sumptuous 1960s era Ennio Morricone soundtrack, can leave one with such a feeling of indifference, bordering on disapproval.