We’ve already had a review this week that took aim at festival documentary programme filler – Bikes vs. Cars was the target – and it’s very easy to go into Palio’s loving look at the centuries-old factional horse race of Siena anticipating the same. It might not lecture so brazenly, but its sound effect-peppered race footage and sweeping score suggests an uncritical puff piece, designed to ram grandeur down our throats. To its credit, director Cosima Spender doesn’t immediately capitulate to the chest-thumping male veterans that she interviews, and captures strong whiffs of the shit-slinging skullduggery they build their houses on. By the time another competitor has been literally blessed for victory, however, her investigation has wound back around and adopted their self-excusing, highs-and-lows mentality. One interviewee surmises that “if you’re not being spat on, you’re worthless,” and ultimately, Spender has created an adulatory curio with the spit and testosterone to make them feel elevated, leaving the rest of us detached and dubious.
The closest we have to a Maximus in this faux-Gladiator is Giovanni Atzeni, a handsome young jockey with a (thankfully living) young wife and child at his back. He practises on dirt circuits and gets snobbish advice from Silvano Vigni, a legend of the sport with silver-fox looks and arrogant bluster that gives him a funny resemblance to Bruce Campbell. “Tittia”, as Atzeni is nicknamed, is building a reputation eclipsing his German heritage in the eyes of the fervent Sienese, and is poised to snatch victory from Gigi Bruschelli, a former mentor with a raft of inside connections hidden behind his knowing smirk. The combined gasconade of the three is only dispersed with small excursions through the event’s history, courtesy of a local archivist, and the climactic race footage itself, noticeably spruced up by the aforementioned bombastic sound mix and voice-overs that explain the tactical shenanigans involved. Ultimately, Atzeni’s journey is a thin thread, with his and other subjects’ guardedness never quite being penetrated, so grandstanding is the order of the day.
There is potential for an investigative dressing-down of the race committee, with some coy rumour-dodging and blistering rivalries given a bit of airtime. Where the corruption festers is in the starting line-up for the race, with the last-drawn racer all but firing the starting gun. This results in a sly image of Bruschelli repelling the other jockeys, most of whom he’s paid off for leg room, right down to the other end of the starting line. There’s a circus-like perversity at play here, but it disappears once Spender and the team are literally off to the races, putting GoPros on horseback and capturing some brutal moments amid the horses’ scamper. Elsewhere, DOP Stuart Bentley makes the sun-kissed Sienese hills sing, and the early morning streets feel hushed in preparation for the oncoming violence, played out as much by the revelers as on the narrow circuit. On their own, these sequences are a decent calling card. Paired with the glib self-aggrandisement of the Palio’s veterans, it feels like a high-end credit card or sporting goods commercial, and symptomatic of the project’s low-balling goals.
If it must aver from properly deconstructing the event’s systematic corruption, Palio could well have gone a wry Wiseman-esque route by expounding on moments of realism and fly-on-the-wall observation, particularly with Atzeni’s hilariously blunt father and a group of women verbally praising and punishing the racers in gossip. Because they remain in the final cut, the artifice is that much clearer. Palio dispenses many a platitude on history-making competition before it wraps its final montage, but once the dust has settled and the winner has been championed, we’re left none wiser to why anyone but those born into it should care.