The Palio di Siena is a horse race that takes place twice every year, in July and August, with the competing horses representing ten of the Italian city’s 17 neighbourhoods. The race itself circles the Piazza del Campo – Siena’s stunning town square – and it’s a hotly-contested event, with jockeys exposing themselves to abuse from the massed crowds (not to mention one another) and some even being badly beaten by disgruntled supporters in the wake of defeat (though this seems fairly trivial next to the treatment of the horses, who are ridden into walls and are even brutally whipped in the face by jockeys). The races that took place during 2013 are covered by this interesting documentary by Anglo-Italian director Cosima Spender, who concentrates on two jockeys in particular, one a seasoned champion who is on the verge of breaking a long-held record for Palio victories, the other a young pretender who was once the master’s apprentice.

If the construct seems a little forced, and a little predictable as a sporting tale, Spender’s decision to follow the two men does at least pay dividends as the races play out. There’s no great rivalry between these two jockeys (other than the fact they’re both determined and want to win), but there’s more than enough spilling from the (mainly male) residents of the different boroughs, who march through the city in their respective colours and sing songs about having ‘the biggest cocks’ and such like. As that would suggest, the races attract a certain degree of machismo, and there’s plenty of footage here of random men running onto the track in front of horses (which kind of reminds me of the running of the bulls), and quite a bit of male peacockery by two former champions, both of whom suggest that the Palio was tougher to win in their day. One – now a trainer – even tells a young jockey that he will only win if he spends less time on Facebook and grows bigger balls (which is ridiculous, as everyone knows it’s impossible to spend less time on Facebook). Spender’s approach is to stand back and let some of these men make slight fools of themselves, though there’s an underlying appreciation for the sincerity of those involved, and a certain understanding of the passion that fuels the race organisers, participants and the emotional spectators.

One of the other interesting aspects of the Palio is the way that underhand deals and finances seem to play a big part; bribery of jockeys is commonplace, and a potential way to win that’s actively encouraged rather than stamped out. Unlike most horse racing it allows a defeated jockey and his supporters to pin the blame for a loss on something that is beyond their control, rather than acknowledging that they were bettered by a superior jockey/horse combination; again, it’s possible that this takes place so that, ultimately, swelling male pride isn’t routinely punctured by crushing defeat. The director seems fascinated by these financial dealings, though sadly she never seems to get to the root of it all, as the trainers, jockeys and others filmed refuse to give much away other than enigmatic smiles and shrugs. There’s no attempt to compare it to corruption within wider Italian society, either, which might have been an interesting angle to explore, even if it’s a little stereotypical and possibly beyond the scope of the documentary. Anyway, with the sun-dappled Tuscan countryside and the glorious Sienese architecture Palio looks the part, and the races themselves incorporate exciting slow-motion sequences, so the viewer can really follow the ups and downs as it all unfolds. Animal lovers will be upset by the treatment of the horses, as mentioned above, and it’s a shame that Spender doesn’t address this fully. How on earth can the jockeys treat the animals in this way after spending so long with them during training?

Directed by: Cosima Spender.
Written by: John Hunt, Cosima Spender.
Cinematography: Stuart Bentley.
Editing: Valerio Bonelli.
Music: Alex Heffes.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Year: 2015.