Blogcritics' interview with Director Cosima Spender, who has has created an amazing documentary of the iconic Palio of Siena, the oldest and one of the most crazy and exciting horse races in the world.
Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Cosima Spender – Director of ‘Palio’
Carole Di Tosti May 17, 2015Comments Off on Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Cosima Spender – Director of ‘Palio’138 Views
Cosima Spender’s film Palio is an intricate, adroit and insightful labor of love. She has grown up knowing and watching the Palio, though she never was able to pierce the inner sanctum of the Palio culture to divine its secrets until making the film.
When I visited Siena, Italy while touring Tuscany a few years ago, the experience was incomparable. The medieval architecture alone is breathtaking. But when I learned why the Piazza del Campo was structured as it was, I was gobsmacked. I could not imagine how the idyllic, quiet square could be transformed into a race track with thousands of spectators coming out to watch horses and riders careening for 90 seconds around the piazza’s narrow, dangerous track at dizzying speeds.
The Palio is the oldest and arguably one of the most memorable horse races in the world. All of Italy watches on TV if they cannot be there live with the Sienese and other spectators. It is quintessentially unique amongst live sporting events in Italy. Thousands participate, standing in the center of the square, which vibrates with the charged atmosphere and heated frenzy of pulsating humanity. The spectators hotly anticipate which of the 10 jockeys selected by the 17 contrade (city districts) will win both of the two races held each summer.
Like avid participants in Venice’s Carnivale or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the contrade (there 17 of these city wards, which have their own unique identities, rituals and rules), and their selected jockeys are consumed with their preparations for the Palio the entire year. The jockeys practice their riding skills, while the Sienese officials, captains of the individual contrade (and the jockeys, too) scheme and make deals to win. Officials and citizens also plan events surrounding the days of the Palio and prepare for celebrations that occur during the tense and exciting time. All look forward to the moment of glory when (hopefully) their district is lionized, winning the Palio’s silk banner.
It is for honor and Sienese fame, not money, nor lands, nor other material goods that the city goes crazy during the Palio days. It is the banner, held up high, on display for all the other contrade to respect. Residents of the winning contrade will rejoice, drink, eat and celebrate their hard won happiness for days afterward. For the Sienese who have been glorifying the ritual for centuries, since the first recorded Palio in 1260, the win is symbolic, perhaps sacred. For the contrade it represents great good fortune and blessings as if they are being reborn into a new and venerable identity. This historic race has remained a constant in Siena through wars, upheavals, the Black Plague and the second global recession when Siena’s lead bank nearly failed. When one thinks of Siena, one also thinks about the Palio for the city and the race in tradition, symbolism and history are one.
In Palio, Cosima lays bare what has been closed for centuries: the machinations, the bribes, the politics, the Machiavellian maneuverings of what it takes to win the Palio of Siena which the film audience discovers is so much more than a bareback horse race. A win is a political and cultural endeavor with far reaching ramifications. Over the years corruption had consumed the event and eroded its beauty and ritualistic power. Spender points out that the Palio may be viewed as a microcosm of Italy in how corruption can nullify the energy and spirit of its people. She also reveals how youthful hope and inspiration can change things for the better. Likewise, with Italy’s new government, the hope is that old corruptions have passed away, and a rebirth will occur for the economy and Italian citizens. Spender’s clever skill as a filmmaker and wisdom as a researcher enable her to capture the burning excitement, the zaniness, the intrigues and the inspirational joy of the Sienese from contrade members to officials to Captains and especially with the two heroic competitors and rival jockeys as they pursue their dreams of winning the 2012 Palio.
Ms. Cosima graciously answered a few questions for me via email after the World Premiere screening of Palio at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
What inspired you to make the documentary Palio at this transitional time in Italy?
It had been at the back of my mind for a long time, as I had wanted to make a film on the Palio as my graduation film at the NFTS (National Film and Television School in England). However, I was glad I waited and teamed up with great producers, John Hunt and James Gay Rees, who were able to bring the best to the table in order to tackle this complicated subject. It was only during my research in 2012 that I realized I wanted to hone in and concentrate on the jockeys as they are the ones in the eye of the storm.
What difficulties did you have getting inside the machinations of the Palio?
Having good producers was key to negotiate the contract with the Palio Consortium (image right holder of the Palio) and keep “final cut,” albeit taking into account their views. It was difficult to film with a large crew in crowded places during the days of the races. On a human level, once I was introduced by a local vet to the characters in the film, I was easily able to forge good relationships with them. Most of them are good friends now. They were happy that we seemed ready to spend quality time making them look good and hearing them talk. I grew up in the area until I was 14, so I spoke with their same accent. This put me in the position of being an ‘insider’ but equally, I was an ‘outsider’ who could ask the probing questions locals cannot ask.
What were some of the challenges you faced getting the documentary made including time line, editing, subjects?
Aside from the many closed doors and secrecy surrounding the Palio, the challenge was to shoot with an Alexa which required a minimum of four people at any given time. During the first race, the crew reached 25 people as the Palio happens in real time in and around the Piazza. We had to have 5 small crews in 5 different places at once. Luckily, Stuart Bentley, the cinematographer, was very capable in prepping all units. It was hard to keep the strands of the stories fluid but strong at the same time, as we hadn’t a clear idea of the narrative until the outcome of the first race. Once the first race was over, we regrouped and thought carefully what to wrap up in terms of filming. Then the long editing process began. Having a feature film editor like Valerio Bonelli, who is also an Italian speaker, meant we could tell the story in a cinematic way. The trick was not to overwhelm the viewer with endless archaic facts but instead, to weave selected information within the personal stories of the central characters.
Do you have distribution for the film and what other festivals if any do you plan to enter?
We are currently considering the options coming in after Tribeca for the U.S. distribution.
Why do you think the film resonates with audiences in the US? Do you anticipate the same or similar response in Italy? Why or why not?
I had underestimated how much New Yorkers love Italy. This film has extraordinary characters, ranging from hilarious to simply charismatic. There is pure drama in the jockeys’ eyes before the races. There is pure adrenaline in the races themselves. I think seeing the ‘old world,’ with its magnificent culture and beauty, captured with outstanding cinematography, gripping editing and a superb music score has kept the Tribeca audiences deeply engaged in their seats, because of the power of a cinematic experience. And it’s all real!
Cosima Spender has chronicled the impossible, recording history in the making with an iconic Italian event that for the first time can be fully appreciated beyond what is superficially known about Siena’s Palio. Though going to a live Palio is tricky because of the crowds and limitations of the small space (one must have kidneys of steel), Spender’s documentary has laid it with her thrilling, cinematic achievement. It is an amazing film that should not be missed, especially if you love Italy, have been to Siena and seen the Piazza del Campo in its serene moments. The film gives one a completely different perspective of the city and square as it throbs with the life of the Palio.
Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs:
The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.
She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.