IUPUI’s fifth annual Italian Film Festival is closing this week with a film that’s bound to leave the Lilly Auditorium rumbling with excitement.
Palio emerges as a testament to the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. Directed by Cosima Spender, this documentary revolves around the world’s oldest horse race — the Palio di Siena. Located in the heart of Tuscany, Siena has been divided into districts for centuries. The race hums with the weight of the city’s history. And the tension between the districts grows as thick as it was hundreds of years ago. Horses represent each sector of the city, but the jockeys are the real stars.
Spender focuses on two sets of men. There’s Gigi Bruschelli, the seasoned rider who won 13 Palios in 16 years, and Giovanni Atzeni, his former student turned rival. At the other end of the generational gap lies Andrea de Gortes, a cocky retired jockey irritated by Bruschelli’s determination to beat his record of 14 Palio victories. The other old rider, Silvano Vigni, is more like Atzeni — humble and hopeful.
The race itself is even rockier than the relationships between these men. It’s an extreme sports spectacle — a competition in which jockeys can whip each other and their horses can still win if they fall off. Cinematographer Stuart Bentley saddles us up on the horses, showing the jockeys’ point of view as they turn the sharp corners of the Piazza del Campo — one of Europe’s most majestic medieval squares. The jockeys slam into walls and their uniforms turn red with blood yet they still fight to the finish line. It’s a potent blend of beauty and brutality.
What happens outside of the race is even more intense and unnerving. Jockeys take bribes, angry fans beat up the losing riders, districts drip with dread. “This is a game of legitimate corruption. It’s life or death,” an older jockey says.
As dirty and violent as it is, Spender still finds light in the darkness of this race. She wisely chooses to focus on Atzeni, the dark horse brimming with hope. The film shifts from a warts-and-all exposé to an uplifting underdog story. Atzeni rises among the ranks of inspirational sports characters like the heroes of Rudy and Rocky.
Unlike the other jockeys jaded by years of shady deals and bloody competitions, Atzeni pursues pure glory — not the kind tainted by money and fame. Unlike Bruschelli, who finds inspiration in the pictures of his victories hanging on the walls of his luxurious home, Atzeni seeks pride in the eyes of his family and friends. He’s a striking symbol of innocence in a sea of corrupt competitors.
Despite its exploration of greed and corruption, Palio is ultimately a wholesome film. Like the best sports dramas, this one is a crowd-pleaser. As clichéd as this sounds, it’s true; this is the kind of film that will make you want to stand up and cheer.
Italian Film Festival: Palio
April 16, 3:15 p.m.
IUPUI, Lilly Auditorium, 755 W. Michigan St.