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Film Review: ‘Palio’ – 4 Stars


Cosima Spender’s fascinating documentary Palio (2015) – released in UK cinemas this week – is about the oldest horse race in the world, whose origins date from medieval times. The Palio is a ruthless bareback race around the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s main square. There are two a year, held in July and August and each race lasts a breathtaking ninety seconds. Spender interviews jockeys, former jockeys now trainers and horse owners, many of whom describe the race as “the essence of the city”.

Jockeys represent ten of the city contrade (districts) and train all year, hoping for their moment of glory. The contrade have names like The Goose, Tortoise and Snail and there is a huge amount of pageantry, as well as enmity, associated with the contest. Gradually, Spender reveals that the Palio is less a race and more a game, where cunning triumphs over equestrian skills. The quality of the horse is often less important than the strategy – horses can be rejected for being too fast. Corruption is rife and jockeys pay off each other for advantage. One interviewee describes them as “mercenaries”; another refers to the contest as “legitimate corruption”.

Full review