Prepare for a breakneck ride round the piazza
Palio CERT 12A, 91 MINS ★★★★☆
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 Cosimo 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.
How the hairy chest conquered television
Slowly, slowly, the real male body is coming back. For years the media has swamped us with images of absurdly buff, hairless men with all the sexual charisma of a crash-test dummy. But suddenly hairy chests are in. Beards are fashionable. Sweaty workmen are in vogue.
What started with Aidan Turner in Poldark, continued with Richard Madden in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and was picked up by Ben Batt in last Sunday’s The Go-Between (BBC One) – the tale of an illicit affair between an aristocratic daughter and a lusty tenant farmer. In the LP Hartley original, a little boy is sent to stay with an Edwardian family in the countryside. He is used as a messenger between the lovers. He doesn’t really understand what they’re up to and the process of figuring it out is a metaphor for the loss of innocence. Sex is not an unfolding wonder; it’s a disappointment. Worse: it’s an addiction. And in pursuit of their woman, the aristocrat and the farmer manipulate the uncomprehending boy and abuse his trust.
This latest production is a bit more understanding towards the lovers. Being forced to meet secretly just because you’re from a different class is something the modern viewer feels sympathy for. The emphasis on romance wrings every bit of sexual tension out of the script. Hence poor Mr Batt played a character who seemed to do everything with his top off: planting, cutting, mowing and, doubtless, just reading a book. It’s wonderful that the BBC is investing in drama and revisiting great works. But this Catherine Cookson, soft-core approach to literature is, frankly, boring.
A faithful, evocative version of The Go-Between was already made in 1970, directed by Joseph Losey. So why repeat the experience? The BBC would do better to reimagine it, update it, adopt an alternative narrative structure or – even – commission an entirely new drama.
In the meantime, the return of working-class handsomeness is welcome. If only because it makes those of us with bog-standard bodies feel a bit more objectivised. The next on-screen hero should have a beer belly and a bad back. That would really strike a blow for lads’ rights.