Thursday, April 23, 2015


A Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Selection

By D.E. Levine

This is a really exciting documentary focusing on the world's oldest horse race, the Palio.  Held in Siena, the ancient city in Tuscany, this race is dramatic and exciting and certainly rivals any of the other well known horse races.

Director Cosima Spender has done an outstanding job of filming the biannual event and certainly the characters she focuses on are as rich as any created for scripted sports stories.  They are real people but almost too rich as characters to believe.  Add to that the traditional banners and ceremonial garb of the contrades and the film takes on deep emotional and visual color.

Born to British artists outside of Siena, Spender is knowledgeable about the storied race which is held every July 2nd and August 16th.  After giving a brief history of Siena, a city divided into close-knit independent contrade or districts, Spender then immerses the viewer in the specifics of the Palio competition, where the jockeys are essentially free agents, contracted to represent individual districts.

However, the Palio is not just a race.  The races last only 90 seconds in Siena's Piazza del Campo but it's doubtful a fiction writer could author something as intricate as the Palio.  It's outcome is openly dependent on all types of intrigues, bribery and betrayals and even threats of physical violence.

While some archival footage is used, cinematographer Stuart Bentley has captured some new and exciting footage.  Anything goes.  Jockeys lash their steeds, bump into competitors during turns and frequently slam competitors into walls, causing pileups and injuries.  And when the race is over, dissatisfied district loyalists are known to get into physical rumbles necessitating police interaction.

The Palio is known as "a game of legitimate corruption" with Palio Organizers practicing shenanigans that will throw the race.  Basically they do everything to minimize luck as a factor in the race.

The characters, real-life trainers and jockeys, are rich in history and passionate in their desire to win the race, although their methods are questionable.  They both admire and resent each other and it all makes for a captivating film.