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Twice a year the Italian city of Siena goes crazy for the oldest horse race in the world: the Palio.

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Palio
Written by
Cosima Spender and John Hunt
Directed by
Cosima Spender
Genre
Documentary
Country
U.K.
Language
Italian
Year
2015

For the tourist, the bareback horse race known as the Palio is merely a bit of picturesque pageantry bringing medieval Siena to life as colourfully costumed jockeys whip their mounts around the historic Piazza del Campo. For the Sienese, on the other hand, it is a very real, contemporary and notoriously corrupt battle to determine both athletic prowess and neighbourhood prestige.

That's the revelation of this fascinating documentary that goes behind the scenes to explain how jockeys prepare for the twice-annual race, a violent 90-second dash around the public square's perilously tight corners by riders representing different districts of the city. Whipping, both your horse and your rival jockeys, is expected; so, too, is pre-race bribery as the districts vie for the best jockeys, who may race under different colours every time, and the jockeys vie for the best horses, which are assigned to the districts by lottery. In particular, the retired jockeys and trainers interviewed by filmmaker Cosima Spender allege that Luigi Bruschelli, the current champion of the Palio, maintains an unfair advantage by racing against young jockeys he has trained who are more inclined to give his horse space at the start line or treat him gently as they ride.

Inquiring minds may wonder how many jockeys have been devastatingly injured in a competition in which riders are often thrown into a melee of hooves, and how many horses have had to be euthanized over the years. (The film makes no mention of animal welfare protests against equestrian street races such as the Palio.) Meanwhile, the culturally minded might also wish for some examination of why this particular race exercises such a hold on the Sienese imagination: residents of the districts raise the huge sums needed to compete in a contest in which the only material prize is a painted banner.

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Instead, Spender has discovered another dramatic story here as the mighty Bruschelli faces a nimble young challenger who may stop him from matching the contemporary record of 14 wins and becoming undisputed king of the Palio – even if one of his 13 victories was achieved by his riderless horse.

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