PalioCosima Spender (It; UK. 2015) doc
viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 2 Oct 2015; ticket: £8.75
Cosima Spender’s Palio works at the level of spectacle and tourist brochure bravura. Otherwise it presents as a confused statement uncertain of its focus.It is able only to come to terms with its key spectacle, the bare back horse races of Sienna,but not with the elements and the forces in play that constitute this event.And of course, well shot as it is and as photogenic as are the horses, spectacle is not enough to fill out the film which seems over long, tendentiously edited to fill out its ‘feature film’ slot length.
The crux of Cosima Spender’s problem was that the race is ultimately just a spectacle, these days a tourist spectacle attracting visitors from around the world.And the Palio as spectacle has of course its own built in tendency to degeneration, hence might need a little refreshing.
One of Spender’s scripting ploys is to scratch a little below the surface of the Palio.But it is difficult to arouse audience interest in the strata of reality that underlie the race, in part because it is in everyone’s (i.e. the parties and the players of the Palio) interest to minimalize the other layers of reality that may be orchestrating the illusion presented to spectators.The interested parties in Sienna will have a vested interest in trying to control and misdirect the probing eyes of outsiders. And Spender’s film does seem a little coy in following up lines of investigative probing.For all the statements made throughout the film that beyond the spectacle there is another game going on, Spender never gets to grip specifically with what this ‘game’ might be.In fact it starts to feel like she doesn’t want to ‘go there’.Where? Into the heart of the tourist trap…?
Palio, the movie, seems content to palm off its audience with nods and winks that the race is corrupt, that the the jockeys are paid off, the horses doped out without really advancing through of the fog of vague assertions and expressive Siennese shrugs.As the movie clomps about in the mire of allegation, viewer interest dries up.There doesn’t even seem to be any gambling associated with the Palio. Is it so corrupt that even gamblers won’t touch it?
The movie turns increasingly to the competition between Gigi, the rogue old time rider and the new jockey on the block, Giovanni.The movie segues into a familiar archetypal myth: the intergenerational saga of the old making way for the new.The problem for Spender was that neither of her two respondents are able to make good claim on the audience’s interest.They both seem remote, content with trotting out formulaic and occasionally gnomic answers to her questions, giving little away. The respondents drabness leads us back to the spectacle and to myth: the agonistic contest between the old and young jockeys that the director with a little help from the organisers of the Palio had set up.At least with myth we know where we are.
And what a set up!Hollywood could not have fixed it better! (well today you’d have a young woman first time rider flicking horse tail dust into the eyes of the old male champ)The contest between the young virtuous innocent and the old corrupt fixer.But attaching to the film’s set up, with its constant re-iterations of the heroic nature of the race, was a feeling of fake build-up, like the tub thumping of an old fairground boxing booth.
It was at this point I felt the lack of the voice of the director.I’d have liked to have heard her voice.because…
The situation of the filming seemed increasingly problematic. The film had presented a state of affairs where it was suggested, albeit coyly, that the race was corrupted and had often been fixed.We then have director Spender come along,and with permission and cooperation of the organisers of the Palio, shoot her film.Of course she wants a story, we all want a story; the organisers of the Palio probably wanted a story.Now far be it from me to suggest that it might have been in everyone’s interests to have a story, but I began to wonder if it was entirely implausible that the Palio people had not only given her the characters of story, but had they also written the script?Surely this was totally impossible: to fix the result of the Palio so that it had the dream mythic ending, with victory for the young pretender?In the 2014 Palio filmed by Spender, the young tanist Giovanni toppled the old king Gigi, beating him twice and supplanting him.Had the Palio organisers got their horse feathers together and given Spender’s movie the perfect climax.Surely not!
The parties involved in organising the Palio were surely righteous men and women with no interest in ensuring that this film would be successful, that the Palio would be seen as a clean horse race.And of course Cosima Spender surely had no interest in ensuring everyone was a winner: herself, all the people involved in the Palio, all the good people of Sienna and the Italian tourist industry.
Of course I am not actually suggesting the races filmed as part of them movie’s climax were ‘fixed’ in any sense. But it is remarkable that the forces the movie documents as being in play in the mounting of the Palio, looked more than capable of arranging reality.And the arrangement of convenient realities is part of the history of documentary film making. (Leni Riefenstahl – who made interesting use of spectacle)Which is why I would like to have heard the voice of Cosima Spender.Sometimes viewed on other terms than its own, a staged documentary can be more interesting than a straight one.