Ten bareback horses — some of them drugged or disfigured — charge around a perilously narrow track for 90 seconds, flogged by their ornately costumed riders. (The jockeys are also allowed to whip their opponents’ horses, and if a rival jockey’s face gets in the way, so be it.) During the Palio — a four-century-old horserace held semiannually in Siena, Italy — it is not uncommon to see riders dislodged and trampled, horses lacerated from repeated smashing into barricades, and angry attendees throttling a losing jockey.
That the outcome of this event is often determined by bribery, deliberately lackadaisical horse training, and other vices could have been the dramatic center of Cosima Spender’s documentary Palio. The reigning champion, Luigi Bruschelli, is a merciless fixer with many an outraged foe (one year his horse bucked him to the ground mid-race and galloped to the finish line, but Bruschelli himself, rather than be disqualified, was still deemed the winner).
Instead, the film, while high-spirited and often hilarious, adheres to a formulaic sports movie structure, as 28-year-old upstart Giovanni Atzeni trains to defeat Bruschelli. He’s racing for glory, not money, naturally, but it’s hard to consider this absurdly handsome, bright-eyed, rather cocky kid an underdog. And while Spender spends enough time with both new and retired jockey legends to collect a gold mine of macho, bullheaded rapport, you wish she delved deeper into the more sinister, behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings.
Still, she certainly evokes the hysteria and hype of the sport, which is so rooted in Catholic rituals that horses get blessed in church before racing. And the one-shot trial race sequence, captured via helmet cam, is a corker.
Written and directed by Cosima Spender
Opens November 6, Cinema Village
Available on demand