Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th September, 2015
I have never liked horse-racing and had only the vaguest idea about the Palio races that take place in the main square of the Italian city of Siena each summer, but last night at the Italian Cultural Institute in London I was enchanted by a film that is all about the jockeys that take part in that mad and often brutal dash. The film is by Cosima Spender, grand-daughter of the poet Stephen Spender, interspersing interviews with the jockeys between sequences of the 90-second races themselves, in which horses often crash into the walls of the arena, the bareback jockeys fall off and many of them beat their rivals with a long stick which they claim is made from an elongated dried animal penis. Each represents a particular district of Siena and the testosterone-fueled rivalry between the gangs of fans is more brutal than that between football supporters. The jockeys themselves are sometimes local heroes, but at other times vilified and literally in danger of a beating. Moreover, the whole process is riddled with financial corruption, making this a singularly Italian “game”. The imagery of the film is spectacular; it justifiably won an award for its editing at the Tribeca festival. But its greatest value is as a work of social anthrolpology, as a study of how a particular community expresses itself through a unique festival that has survived down the centuries. Out on general release in British cinemas soon, it is well worth seeing.