Palio is a feature-length documentary about Il Palio, the oldest horse race in the world – a brutal and treacherous bareback race that takes place twice a year (once in July and once in August) around the central Piazza del Campo in the Tuscan city of Siena.
Cards on the table, travel is my other great passion (but sadly one I don’t get to indulge in very often at this moment in time). Therefore if I watch a well-made travel documentary or foreign film, for me it’s the next best substitute for the real thing.
I was also looking forward to Palio as it was recommended to me by The Depot Cinema’s Carmen Slijpen. Carmen likened Il Palio’s sense of pageantry and its rivalries between the competing city wards to the seven Lewes Bonfire societies who all aim to build the most provocative tableau, wear the best costumes and put on the most spectacular firework display.
Carmen’s comparison is a good one. While totally different, both events are incredible spectacles - but for those involved they are also a serious business not to be taken lightly. Pride is at stake and upholding tradition is everything. In Lewes November 5th is by far and away the most important date in the calendar and, more or less as soon as Bonfire Night has passed, plans and preparations begin again in earnest for next year. It is the same in Siena for Il Palio.
Both events date back over 400 years and bind their communities together. To really understand their accompanying nuances you can’t be an outsider, only locals can truly understand the importance of the various traditions and history of rivalries that go back hundreds of years.
The first thing to say about Palio is that it’s beautifully shot. The cinematography gets right into the heart of the action – the horses thunder past the screen at close range and the sense of danger you feel on behalf of both horses and riders is nerve-jangling.
As with all great documentaries – Senna, the 2010 film about the rivalry between Formula One drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, being a prime example - you don’t need to have any existing interest in the subject matter to enjoy Palio . It’s the fascinating personalities and bitter rivalries behind the event that are the real story that sucks you in and has you gripped.
Like all the best sports films, Palio is also the tale of a young rookie who wants to knock the undisputed long-time champion of his perch. You have someone to root for, which adds an extra layer of suspense. Will he make it or will he turn out to be yet another young pretender not quite good enough to make the grade?
Another intriguing subplot to Palio is the level of corruption involved. What’s more, the corruption is an open secret and so entrenched it’s pretty much an accepted tactic. All kinds of behind-the-scenes shenanigans take place to try and ensure the outcome of the race as much as possible. Culturally, it’s fascinating that none of the locals bat an eyelid at the passing of money or favours to try and sway the odds in the favour of a particular rider - from the horse he gets to ride to his position on the start line.
The beauty of Il Palio is that it can never be completely corruptible. The horses themselves, of course, aren’t bothered about money and, anyway, such is the nature of the racing conditions that a catastrophic collision can take place at any moment. Moreover, unlike most horse races across the world, if a horse crosses the finishing line first without its rider it’s still crowned the winner.
The race itself usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. An exhilarating film, Palio’s 92 minute running time flies by at the same pace.