Review: Modern Gladiators Dominate the World’s Oldest Horse Race in Palio

Winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Cosima Spender’s documentary Palio profiles the Palio di Siena. The Palio is the world’s oldest horse race that takes place in July and August every year in Siena, Italy. For over 800 years, spectators have packed the Piazza del Compo to witness the parades of medieval revelry and the infamous 90 seconds where horses furiously race around the square for both pride and glory. The film also offers a never before seen look at the legendary, modern jockeys (fantini) that have redefined the race. But in Siena, the Palio is so much more than just a horse race.

To this day, Siena is divided into different neighbourhoods, known as a contrada, to which each citizen is born and pledges their allegiance. Though there are 17 contrade, only 10 are represented at each Palio. Winning the Palio is attributed just as much, if not more so, to strategy and making deals than to the speed of one’s horse. The documentary focuses on the domination and influence of veteran jockey Gigi Bruschelli, who has won an unprecedented 13 Palios in 16 years. His rival, the young Giovanni Atzeni, who, though trained by Bruschelli, looks to win his first Palio for the renown of his contrada rather than the personal glory and payday Bruschelli seeks.

While the tension and unpredictability of the race is enough to capture the viewer’s attention, for instance, a rider-less horse crossing the finish line can still win. Spender’s inquiries into the year-long strategic planning of contrade and jockeys alike steals the show in this film. The documentary paints a fascinating picture of how the Sienese will do anything to win. Atzeni states, “[Palio] is life and death.” The tension is palpable between the loyalty of the Sienese to their contrada and the jockeys who serve as mercenaries, shifting between contrade each race, their allegiances easily bought and sold. As each horse is designated to the contrada based on a draw, the jockey is subsequently bought based on which contrada captain offers the most money or the best deal. Once the horses are delegated, the real game begins; jockeys, captains, and contrade attempt to bribe others to throw the race, manipulate themselves into a better position, or simply sabotage their enemies.

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Spender’s documentary is beautifully done. The stunning cinematography and score couple together to emphasize the vivid colours that set the Palio as one of the world’s most dramatic stages. Spender also mixes the fast-paced action with slow motion close ups that build the tension leading up to the race. The suspense built by the score strikes a balance with strategically placed silence to communicate how quiet a sea of people can be, right before the horses begin to run, when everything they believe in is on the line.

Palio explores a group of people desperately trying to control fate with bribery and manipulation but ultimately being left powerless to elements they cannot control. In the city of Siena, allegiances are the most important thing to each contrada. But the undying loyalty the Sienese feel, sobbing in the street, screaming, driven to the point of violence, is constantly battling against the unpredictable factors of each Palio. Despite the race taking place twice a year, the film shows how each race exists in of itself; the Palio represents living in the moment investing everything into one race complimented by holding a 400-year-old grudge.

For the Sienese, one win is never enough, they are always thirsty for the next victory, their next hero. A young jockey in the film describes the glory and despair that awaits those who become fantini: “To win the Palio, it’s a dream. I caught this beautiful sickness.” Spender’s film offers the outsider a glimpse into the life of the locals and puts them in the position to choose a side, just as the Sienese do. The contrade live in constant tension because the race that divides them into vicious groups is simultaneously the passion that unites them all.

Palio is screening at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema until February 2nd. It is also available on iTunes, Google Play, and Vimeo On Demand.
Photos courtesy of Janus Kinase via Flickr

Alysha is an Online Editor for onthedanforth.ca and Circulation Manager for On the Danforth summer edition. When she’s not watching TV or having a solo dance party, she can be found eating dry Froot Loops and excessively quoting movies. For her sassy observations about life, you can follow her on Twitter

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