VIFF 2015: Palio
Palio, a British-Italian documentary, takes us behind the pageantry and deep inside the colourful and arcane world of the horse race known as the Palio di Siena, one of the world’s oldest sporting events, held twice a year – July 2 and August 16 – in the medieval square at the heart of the Tuscan town of Siena.
Palio is an example of what director Cosima Spender calls a “dream documentary,” that rare occasion when, against all odds, events captured by the documentary camera crews conspire to form a near-perfect and highly satisfying narrative. Real life – despite our unconscious wishes otherwise – does not often conform to the conventions of fiction. The events of life are usually open-ended; they ignore our instinctive desire for closure, for resolution; perhaps this is why we are drawn to fiction. After viewing a “dream documentary” you are tempted to believe that the director is more than a passive conduit for observed events, that she has somehow acquired godlike powers: a novelist’s ability to create suitable characters who embody and express the tensions which propel narrative. But as Spender explained in the Q&A following Thursday’s screening, her fortunate selection (from many candidates) of Gigi Bruschelli (Siena-born, hometown favorite) and Giovanni Atzeni (Sardinian, a former apprentice to Bruschelli) as the central figures of her film was really more a matter of luck.
Palio the film is wonderfully operatic, just as Palio, the race itself, is operatic. We are first given a graceful overview of the cultural context of the Palio: the historic division of the city into 17 contrade, or city wards, a fragmentation that reflects and preserves centuries-old enmities within Sienese society. At each Palio ten of these wards enter a horse and jockey into the race, each ward employing a captain and two lieutenants who make crucial decisions on their behalf (primarily: which jockey to hire). The jockeys themselves are not loyal to any one ward; they are, in effect, mercenaries, and are treated with a mixture of adoration and disdain by the Sienese. Behind the scenes, behind the pageantry of the event itself, lies a labyrinth of sanctioned bribery and influence-pedaling; amazingly, the director and crew were granted access to this shadowy world.
In addition to the satisfying narrative “shape” of the film, there are many other pleasures to Palio: the photography is stunning (there were five camera crews stationed around the square during the races, and they captured some spectacular footage) as is the sound (most of which was apparently done in post-production). Through expert editing you are pulled into the action on race day: close-ups intercut with long shots that give context; occasional but effective use of slow-motion draws your attention to key moments. These visuals are accompanied by the percussive thuds of the horses’ hooves as they pound across the packed sand, and the cruel snap of the long, stiff whips as the jockeys lay about them on every side. It is an intensely visceral experience. One of my favourite films of this year’s VIFF.