Cosima Spender’s fascinating documentary Palio (2015), released on DVD this week, is about the oldest horse race in the world, whose origins date from medieval times. The Palio is a ruthless bareback race around the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s main square. There are two a year, held in July and August and each race lasts a breathtaking ninety seconds. Spender interviews jockeys, former jockeys now trainers and horse owners, many of whom describe the race as “the essence of the city”.
Jockeys represent ten of the city contrade (districts) and train all year, hoping for their moment of glory. The contrade have names like The Goose, Tortoise and Snail and there is a huge amount of pageantry, as well as enmity, associated with the contest. Gradually, Spender reveals that the Palio is less a race and more a game, where cunning triumphs over equestrian skills. The quality of the horse is often less important than the strategy – horses can be rejected for being too fast. Corruption is rife and jockeys pay off each other for advantage. One interviewee describes them as “mercenaries”; another refers to the contest as “legitimate corruption”.
During the race, the jockeys whip each other as well as their mounts and are often violently turfed off their horses. For some riders, it clearly feels like a life or death ordeal. Likewise for the poor horses. Afterwards, losing jockeys run the risk of being viciously beaten by spectators. The winner, by contrast, is treated as a saint and is promptly taken to the cathedral, with the horse, to be blessed. Palio is told through the perspectives of three generations of competitors. In particular, Spender focuses on two jockeys: Gigi Bruschelli, who has won thirteen Palios and wants to break the record of fourteen currently held by the retired Andrea Degortes (nicknamed Aceto) and Bruschelli’s own protégé, newcomer Giovanni Atzeni who, at twenty-eight, believes himself to be in his prime and that Bruschelli is on his way out.
The most telling commentary comes from Silvano Vigni (Bastiano) – once Aceto’s rival, now friend – who was himself usurped by Bruschelli. Vigni is scathing about the corruption and Bruschelli’s current domination of the sport. In the final segment, Spender concentrates on the two Palios that pitch Bruschelli against Atzeni. It’s a dangerous track with tight corners and the horses and jockeys are both at risk. The cruelty of The Grand National, perceived by some, pales into insignificance when compared to the Palio di Siena. Through this absorbing, sometimes disturbing documentary, Spender reveals much about Italy’s underworld, as well as the people’s passion for spectacle, their machismo, pride and their rivalry.