Having once visited Siena on a day trip and having thus seen its central square, the Piazza del Campo, scene of the famous horse race, the Palio, I approached this documentary feature with particular interest. Even so, it exceeded my expectations. The film is admirably informative about this unique event which takes place twice a year - once in July and once in August - but which preoccupies Siena throughout the year because, even though the race itself lasts all of ninety seconds, the districts or contrade into which the city is divided compete in it on the most intense level. Add to this rivalry the fact that the race dates back to the 13th century and that it has rules that allow a riderless horse to win and it is easy to recognise what a remarkable event this is.
In Cosima Spender the Palio has its perfect interpreter. This writer/director is blessed with the curiosity of an outsider (she is a London based Anglo-Italian) but also had a degree of access only possible to an insider (she grew up in Siena and was therefore known to its citizens who allowed her to film the race and were at ease being interviewed by her). This background explains why her film is so absorbing, but it is sheer talent that turns it into exceptional cinema: shot in colour and ’Scope by Stuart Bentley, it looks magnificent (ideally it should be seen in a cinema) and the editing by Spender’s husband, Valerio Bonelli, is some of the best that I have seen this year. It adds immeasurably to the excitement and to the acute sense of atmosphere conveyed although those worried by the danger to horses in the Grand National will certainly have qualms here.




It could be thought that you need to be interested in horse racing for Palio to be engrossing but in fact, fascinating as the film is about the event, it also intrigues on another level. What we see reveals a love for the horses but an attitude to the riders that encompasses both veneration if they win and hatred if they lose (old footage shows one jockey being beaten up by the crowd). Even more significantly the interviews here, which centre on two retired riders and on others involved now, reveal a degree of corruption known to happen. Under this heading one hears of much bribery and also strategy to block others by riders who recognise that their horses look unlikely to win. What is most startling about this is that one gets a definite impression that the citizens of Siena admire not only the best rider but also those who are most adept at taking advantage by underhand methods: they speak of the Palio being not a race but a game. The extent to which one sees this as characteristic of many Italians – or, more fairly perhaps, of many living in Tuscany – is for the individual viewer to decide.
That all of these aspects emerge so clearly in Palio makes it a fascinating film but, by lucky chance, the movie is also able to offer additional dramatic impact. This stems from the fact that the filming took place in 2013 which turned out to be the year when the veteran Gigi Bruschelli hoped to become the rider with the most wins ever, while Giovanni Atzeni, not yet thirty and in his prime, aspired to bring off the coup of winning both the July and August events. The tension that builds as we observe these two men speaking candidly at a time when it begins to look as though Atzeni’s dream might become reality provides a marvellous extra layer. There is no doubt at all about Palio being one of the best documentaries in a year that has been noted for them - indeed it is arguable that it is the best one of all and the most cinematic.




Featuring  Gigi Bruschelli, Giovanni Atzeni, Silvano Vigni, Andrea de Gortes.


Dir Cosima Spender, Pro John Hunt and James Gay-Rees, Screenplay Cosima Spender and John Hunt, Ph Stuart Bentley, Ed Valerio Bonelli, Music Alex Heffes.


Archimedia/On the Corner Films/ MeMo Films-Altitude Film Distribution and Picturehouse Entertainment.

91 mins. UK/Italy. 2014. Rel: 25 September 2015. Cert. 12A.