Each year Siena’s Piazza del Campo hosts a pair of horse races of such ferocity that they make the Grand National look like a canter through a quiet meadow. The races have Catholic associations: July’s Palio is in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, while August’s marks the Assumption. But sacred niceties are hard to find in these wild chases, and Cosima Spender’s superb documentary puts us right at the centre of the madness.
The Palio dates back to the medieval period and remains firmly bound up in arcane rituals and rules. Lots decide which riders will represent each of the fabulously named districts, such as She-Wolf, Valley of the Ram and Crested Porcupine. If a rider is unseated, his horse can still win the race, a convention that adheres to the Palio principle that jockeys are expendable mercenaries, in contrast to their unimpeachable equine counterparts.
Bribery and corruption also figure prominently. In the build-up district captains wheel and deal, while in the race itself the jockeys try to bribe the rider who has been picked to get proceedings underway. As an old hand puts it: “Without corruption there is no Palio.”
Spender focuses on the two Palios of 2013, which pitted perennial winner Gigi Bruschelli against young hopeful Giovanni Atzeni. Bruschelli, who, it appears, has exerted a sinister control over the race for many years, comes across as the smirking villain of the piece, while Atzeni’s eagerness in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds has you rooting for him all the way round the piazza.
All the ingredients of a clichéd sports story are present, with the youthful pretender hoping to knock the old champ off his perch. But over-familiarity is avoided thanks to the unique and crazy nature of this particular sporting world.
The film also brilliantly captures the essence of what makes sport so intoxicating for those who love it. There’s wonderful footage of the colourful, heaving square on race day. Burly men sing their districts’ anthems in beautiful harmony, while people strain for a vantage point as they argue the toss over which district will carry away the coveted victor’s flag. The races themselves are tense and explosive. Clips of previous Palios are also used to good effect.
Those who object to these races on the grounds of animal cruelty will not be happy with the documentary as it completely avoids the issue. Spender has instead created a cinematic ode to this dangerous, passionate and often absurd Italian custom.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (25/9/15).
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