A centuries-old horse race in a picturesque Italian city comes across as a brazenly corrupt, carnival-like contact sport in “Palio,” director Cosima Spender’s bemused view of the biannual event that gives her impressively polished documentary its title. The film boasts characters as rich, and a narrative as entertaining, as might be found in the most crowd-pleasing of scripted sports sagas, which should enhance its allure for mainstream audiences in all platforms.
Spender was born in Italy to a family of resident British artists, and grew up just outside of Siena, where the storied Palio race is held every July 2 and Aug. 16. Her familiarity with the territory serves her well as she offers her audience a brief but lucid crash course in the history of Siena — a city long divided into close-knit and more or less independent districts, or contrade — then immerses us in the particulars of a competition where jockeys are free agents, contracted to represent individual districts, and outcomes are known to be affected by bribery, betrayals, intrigues and, in some cases, threats of physical violence.
The actual 90-second races in Siena’s Piazza del Campo — many represented in archival footage, others excitingly captured by lenser Stuart Bentley — resemble equestrian versions of NASCAR contests, with jockeys bumping rivals during turns, or slamming them into walls, and horses causing massive pileups when they stumble. Jockeys are free to lash their steeds, and each other, with whips made of stretched and dried ox penises. (No, seriously.) And the mayhem doesn’t always stop when the race ends: Angry district loyalists who suspect losing jockeys of taking bribes, or just not trying hard enough, are known to express their disappointment nonverbally. One Palio veteran recalls having to arm himself with two butcher knives to ward off a mob before police arrived.
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Time and again, Spender emphasizes the shenanigans at the heart of the Palio: Organizers of the race routinely allow only “mediocre” horses, so that all outcomes will rely (they hope) entirely on individual jockeys who can be manipulated (i.e., lavishly paid or paid off). It is “a game of legitimate corruption,” according to local Palio historian Sergio Profeti, maintained by proud representatives of contrade that have been divided for generations by quarrels and boundary disputes. In short, they do practically everything to minimize luck as a factor in the Palio.
It’s hard to tell how much luck figured into Spender’s “casting” of lead players for her documentary, but however she made her choices, she chose wisely. In the forefront of her story, there is the fascinating generational rivalry between 46-year-old Gigi Bruschelli, who comports himself with all the self-assurance you’d expect of someone who has won 13 Palios in 16 years, and 29-year-old Giovanni Atzeni, a soft-spoken but intensely ambitious jockey who left his home in Sardinia years earlier to study under Bruschelli, and now hopes to defeat his former mentor.
The two most prominent supporting players: Silvano Vigni, a retired jockey who provides an alternately sage and sardonic running commentary replete with barbed criticism of the Palio; and Andrea de Gortes, a robust and unabashedly egocentric septuagenarian known as Aceto, who’s still revered as a legend for his 14 Palio victories.
Not surprisingly, Aceto is none too happy that Bruschelli — whom he views as an insolent and overrated upstart — is poised to break his long-standing record. (“I’m used to sitting at the head of the table,” he says. “Always. When Pavarotti came here, I sat at the head of the table, not him.”) Meanwhile, Bruschelli continues making smooth moves to gain advantage in the next Palio, switching allegiances from one district to the next and, maybe, maneuvering to fob an unprepared horse off on another jockey. Asked about allegations of money changing hands, he casually admits: “There are many strategies and deals.” Such as? Sorry, he replies with a smile, but he can’t be more specific until he retires.
“Palio” abounds with vibrant swaths of local color — sometimes quite literally, as when members of various contrade sport their characteristic banners and ceremonial garb — and captivates with the sort of sharply observed details that make for arresting storytelling. And if some of the goings-on detailed by Spender are, well, sort of sleazy — that, too, adds to film’s unique appeal.