The Palio is a monumental and historic horse race that takes place twice every summer in the huge central piazza, Il Campo, in the heart of Siena, Italy, one of the most memorable and ancient cities in Tuscany. In her thrilling and insightful documentary Palio which made its World Premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, director Cosima Spender wisely portrays Siena, both its citizens and its fabulous environs, as main players in the unfolding events leading up to the Palio of 2012. This amazing race, is an extraordinary character in the film and audiences will appreciate Siena’s breathtaking, medieval architecture and marvel how as ritual and tradition dictates for this unique event held on July 2nd and August 16, Il Campo is transformed into a dangerous, narrow race track which holds excitement and potential death for the horses and their jockeys.
The city’s design and Il Campo where the horse race is run around the piazza three times in 90 minutes, have retained their venerable cache. Modern city organizers have not changed the nine sections of the fan-like brick pavement of the piazza which represent the ancient governing council (The Council of Nine, 1287-1355) and symbolize the Madonna’s cloak which supposedly shelters Siena. Though the cloak symbolically inspired Sienese resilience from ancient times to the present protecting them through wars, the horror of the Black Plague, the dissolution of its status as a republic in 1555, and recent financial scandals (it has the oldest bank in the world), Spender reveals that throughout the centuries, the Palio has been a constant.
The Palio is the oldest horse race in the world. The event both bonds the city together yet tears it apart. Like Italy, the Palio has suffered from corruption, machinations, double dealings, intrigues and entrenched manipulations. It is from exploring the underpinnings of this event that Spender brilliantly lays bare the nature of the Sienese and the conflicts and themes of the Palio as revelatory of the human desire to transcend corruption and achieve glory in the hope of reforming to nullifying systems which spoil and deaden the human spirit.
Spender’s cinematic skill in telling the story of the Palio, Siena and the Sienese abides from the introduction of the film where the camera follows the horses and jockeys in colorful slow motion with voice over descriptions of what the Palio is, right up to the exhilarating montage of the final race in August where the joyous cheering of the crowd and the emotional splendor of the victor and his horse sweeps one’s heart away. Spender is an excellent researcher and she uses her art to reveal the characters and the vibrancy of their minds and natures as well as their Machiavellian ways. Indeed, the Palio is the city’s “claim to fame” and winning is everything for the jockeys and the Sienese who either adore and venerate the winner who represents their district, or despise and abjectly loathe the loser. Indeed, in the past emotions have been so volatile, the district’s citizenry even stabbed to death a few losing jockeys whom they considered to be corrupt betrayers.
The city is divided into 17 districts (contrade) which were established in 1260 when each was a military battalion. Even in the present day, the contrade are known to have their own identities, laws, legislation and rituals. Together in a paradox of unity and disparity they form the city of Siena. One is born and baptized into a contrade; it is the citizenry’s inheritance and identity. Out of the 17 Sienese districts, there are 10 contrade who participate in the Palio’s two races and from these 10, there can be only one winner. The symbolism and honor of winning is not in receiving a huge purse that the jockey or district collects. Rather it is the glory of being able to display the painted silk banner high in their district where everyone in the city can see it. It is the exultation of knowing that their district’s randomly selected horse and their hired jockey have brought them into a coveted immortality, if even for only 1 year.
In exacting the character and “crazy nuttiness” of the Sienese, Spender had to gain the trust of the city dwellers and many of those connected with the Palio from past to present. With adroit authenticity she brilliantly moves inside this culturally arcane world with its complexities and relationship dynamics between jockeys, district captains and trainers. It is a political world with secret deal making, “justified bribery,” undercurrents and hush-hush negotiations that have remained a mystery for centuries. Spender’s documentary with each revelation, with each finely edited segment peels back the layers and unshrines the cryptic so that we are able to understand not only the profound meanings this closed Sienese culture embraces, but we are able to viscerally “get” how and why the citizens are so united around the Palio and why they are so devastated when the jockey they hired doesn’t pull through for them.
To root out the enigmatic machinations, Spender was able to elicit the help and commentary of individuals on the inside: a Palio nerd, former Palio winners, the jockeys running in the Palio 2012, and others. All of the interview clips, narration, bantering dialogues and citizen perceptions Spender uses as the backdrop as she follows the dramatic rivalry between two jockeys, one who has never won a Palio and one who has won many.
These jockeys are protagonists and amazing characters in their own right. Gracefully, Spender does not cast them as enemy vs. hero but as representative types of the ancient and the modern who memorialize the pulsating heart of a historic remnant of the past. Gigi Bruschelli is of the old guard and he is venerated because of his experience, acumen and intricate, profound knowledge of how the Palio’s complex matrix of gaming works. Gigi has been unbeatable. The Sienese envision the possibility of his winning again for he has worn accolades for 13 Palios in 16 years. His reputation precedes him as “the King of the Square.” Gigi is hungry for the prize, for if he reaches the numbers 14 and 15, he will reign supreme having beaten the world record for Palio wins by the champion Andrea de Gortes (Aceto). An avid competitor that Spender follows is the youthful Giovanni Atzeni who has lost Palio after Palio. The competition between the two jockeys is “complicated.” Gigi was Giovanni’s mentor. He related all of his expertise about riding the Palio to Giovanni whom he nurtured like a son. Indeed, he poured his knowledge into Giovanni who soaked it up with a great love for the horses and the aesthetic of Siena and the greatest race in the world, the Palio.
Spender reveals that the cost of the rivalry between the two jockeys is paid in tension and excitement. She includes clips of both as they train. Giovanni who is half-German and half-Sardinian works and practices tirelessly. Though the two men have an affection for each other, no matter how good willed it is, the situation brings contention; both have determined they will succeed and will not give place to the other. Gigi has spiritual bravado, psychological strategies and experiential politicking “know how” from past wins. He knows the Palio is more than a race; it is a high-level psychological, social and emotional intrigue. Giovanni has a quiet, adamantine confidence and a youthful verve. To his credit his skills have been embraced by the best, Gigi, who brought him under his tutelage because he intuited Giovanni’s special qualities. Gigi is clever enough to understand that as a key power, you train your competitors and keep them close, having gotten inside their minds and hearts. As the documentary speeds toward the finish line, the townspeople, former jockeys and Palio experts weigh in, waxing eloquently about the the brilliant Gigi and the youthful 29-year-old Giovanni who is snapping at his heels.
Spender’s direction, Stuart Bentley’s cinematography and Valerio Bonelli’s editing (he won for best documentary editing at Tribeca), meld the scenes leading up to the final race with heightened suspense and subtle dexterity so that it is impossible to divine which of the competitors will ride off with the coveted silk banner. Surely, the commentary from citizens and Palio experts imply that Gigi’s past gambits, Machiavellian power plays and bribes will serve him in this important Palio which will place him at the brink of achieving the world record. Much of the Palio is psychological dominance and the will to power which Gigi has in spades. For many years he has charmed, corrupted and deceived jockeys to emotionally cave in to his predominance. On the other hand, Giovanni is young and has an ingenuousness and guileless nature in addition to his superb riding skills crucial to bring him through the treacherous sections of the race track that have felled lesser jockeys. We hear from the citizens that he may win on his own merits for he is more adroit and talented than Gigi in handling horses. Perhaps it is time for new, vital blood to succeed in a race that, like Italy itself, has been steeped in corruption and insidious power mongerings which have frustrated and tormented Italian souls for decades.
Spender, who has directed and co-written Palio with co-writer and producer John Hunt, brilliantly culls and edits just the right dialogue from the various players: citizens, Palio officionados, trainers, jockeys, etc. Much of it is humorous and profound: the Sienese characterize their Palio craze as an addictive weakness; yet it is the solid strength of their identity. With truth Spender lovingly highlights the citizens as the thrilled or desolate members of their contrade who are nevertheless proud to be inheritors of the ancient city’s beauty and sorrow. Theirs is a celebrated bondage to be at one with Siena’s rituals and traditions represented by this overarching horse race over which little children and adults obsess about winning year after year. This most “in the moment” of films is exceptional in familiarizing us with the race which probably dates back before construction of Il Campo to even before the first Palio which was 1238. Spender and John Hunt include many engrossing details; for example the police give the jockeys stretched, dried ox penises so they can whip each other during tight moments as they careen toward the finish line. The whipping is an effective psychological humiliation designed to demean an opponent and turn him against himself, shaking his faith that he will win.
The Palio of Siena is an event that is not to be missed. Wherever they are, whatever they are doing, all of Italy watches the the race on television if they cannot be in Siena for the thrill of seeing it live. Spender has made an iconic documentary about this most exceptional and symbolic of sporting celebrations whose ethos has remained inviolate. Its is a terrible and ironic beauty: though there is corruption and bribery gambits and dark strategies, the Palio is not about money. It is about honor, it is about pride, it is about identity. Spender has captured all this in her memorable film which pays homage to a city that cannot be defined, a city that is a microcosm of the struggles of the human spirit. For despite weakness and loss, where there is life there is uplifting hope and from that emerges the finest of spiritual attributes. These are manifest in the Palio of Siena and in Spender’s loving documentary.