Palio, film review: Cosima Spender's fiery show of crazy horses and wild riders

(12A) Cosima Spender, 90 mins

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The Independent Culture

Cosima Spender's wonderfully vivid and fiery film follows a season of the “Palio,” the bareback horse race round the square of Siena, run since medieval times. The director treats her subject matter as if she is making a spaghetti Western or a commedia dell'arte spectacle, not a documentary. It helps that her main protagonists are a colourful and cunning bunch.

The reigning champ of the square is Gigi Bruschelli, a ruthless but personable jockey on the verge of breaking the record for numbers of Palios won. Always ready to bribe or intimidate opponents, he leaves little to chance. Up against him is the fresh-faced Giovanni Atzeni. The old-timers scowl on the sidelines, grumbling that a new generation of riders lack the balls of their generation.

At times, as horses are blessed in churches or we see archive footage of losing jockeys being beaten up by furious crowds, the film takes on a surreal hue. The race is extremely dangerous for riders and mounts alike. The issue of animal cruelty is one the film-makers ignore, perhaps on the grounds that if they addressed it the mystique of the documentary would be shattered. The Palio featured in Quantum of Solace but it is a testament to Spender's skills that, for sheer spectacle, her film stands comparison with anything in the Bond movie.