Gangs of Siena (Documentary Review: “Palio”)

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Il Palio di Siena is the oldest continuous horse race in Italy, and according to some, the World. As the fascinating documentary, Palio makes crystal clear, it’s not so much a race as it is a game. You don’t bet on the horse; it’s all about the jockey.

SnapShot Plot

Since the 6th Century, the rival military neighborhoods of Siena (called Contrade) have taken out their deep seated hostilities in the form of a no-holds-barred horse race that remains to this day mostly true to its original medieval form. Out of the original 59 in the Middle Ages, there are 17 remaining contrade with names that sound like something out of a Harry Potter book: Eagle, Snail, Wave, Panther, Forest, Tortoise, Owl, Unicorn, Shell, Tower, Ram, Caterpillar, Dragon, Giraffe, Porcupine, She-Wolf and Goose. Only ten contrade will actually compete on the track, which is the perimeter of the magnificent Piazza del Campo (the famed ‘clam shell’), attracting upwards of 60,000 bystanders. The race takes place each summer on two dates: July 2 and August 16. Palio fever completely monopolizes the city around these dates, while the active members within each contrada live every day of the year planning and scheming to emerge triumphant, or at the very least to ruin their enemy’s chances of winning.

In this superb documentary, the inner machinations of the race are explored as we meet the reigning superstar jockeys of the Palio (symbolizing the old guard), as well as a few young riders who have come up through the ranks, mentored by the very same ‘old timers’ against whom they will now compete. This is a horse race like no other, with an underworld of corruption hiding in plain sight, involving backroom deals and bribes that extend right onto the track – negotiated by the jockeys themselves – in the moments before the rope is dropped and the race begins. Its an elaborate game of deal-making in which the rider emerges as the real power player (representing the contrada that hires him) and the horse itself as a secondary player in the action. But of course, it is also a very real, heart-stopping horse race comprised of a mere 3 laps around the dirt-packed track which takes an intense 90 breathtaking seconds to complete. It’s all bareback, ridden in Medieval costume, and there are no rules. Anything can happen. Anything goes. Whatever it takes to either win or – almost as satisfying – to ensure that your enemy doesn’t take home the Palio.

The winning contrada receives no monetary prize, but rather an original hand-painted “Drappellone” or large hanging canvas each year designed and created by a different artist, which is displayed in the winning contrada’s museum. The only monetary prize is the payment to each jockey by the contrada for which he’s riding, supplemented of course by the bribes he may receive and discounted by the bribe money he himself pays to other jockeys at the start of the race. It’s all a complicated game of chess that to an outsider may seem silly, even crazy, on the face of it. Until you realize how serious this game really is.

 

“It’s not just a horse race; for us it’s Life”

Parting Shot

Palio is beautifully photographed, with a rousing score and insightful interviews showing the humor, cleverness and passion of the Italian people to whom this is much more than a pastime. Indeed, what the film delivers is a peephole into a culture that for centuries has bucked the rules and rewarded the values of loyalty and pride in one’s community, even when those same values go unchecked and become their own thorny problems. And of course, what’s also exposed is the mirror reflection of all this passion, meaning the palpable register of enmity and hostility between neighborhoods that’s as old as the fertile dirt of the entire Italian peninsula. I suppose this dichotomy within the soul of the Italian people is what has made them such rich fodder for literature, poetry, art and music through the ages.

The closest connection one could make to the Palio would have to be the Spanish bullfighting tradition. To Americans whose passions are mostly limited to football teams, perhaps the strangely inviting dangers of NASCAR could come close. Whatever your comparisons, the Palio resembles not so much the elegant ‘sport of kings’ as it does a rough and tumble equine roller derby. But don’t mistake the Sienese people’s lust for their Palio as something relegated to custom; their devotion to the race and their Contrade reaches into a sacrosanct landscape which remains unchanged for almost 800 years and will remain so for another 800.

Palio is presently streaming on Netflix.

For more detail on the Palio, here’s a short video:

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YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITrpehKgfs8

Inside Il Palio: Italy’s Oldest Horse Race – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ID0kIaLaGLQ

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