Magazine article Screen International

'Palio': This Year's Best Superhero Film

Magazine article Screen International

'Palio': This Year's Best Superhero Film

Article excerpt

After a handsome apprentice from a foreign land rebels against his former master's network of absolute power he must undergo a rigorous training before facing him in a gladiatorial battle set against the backdrop of a throbbing Colosseum...

It's not your average documentary plotline, but those in need of an autumn pick-me-up after death-by-spandex-covered-Hollywood-actors-strutting-between-green-screens need look no further than Cosima Spender's (Without Gorky) remarkable new documentary Palio, whose narrative arc and visuals better that of any blockbuster.

Spender, the grand-daughter of English writer Sir Stephen Spender, had long-wanted to make a film about the Palio, the iconic horse race that takes place twice a year in the Italian city of Siena, the city of her childhood.

The fiercely contested 90-second road-race, whose origins date back to medieval times, sees ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours, battle to the winning line at breakneck speed to secure victory for one of Siena's ferociously competitive 'contrade', or districts.

Spender's film charts the tradition, pageantry, intrigue and corruption at the heart of the Palio through the rivalry between legendary and wily veteran Luigi 'Trecciolino' Bruschelli, the most successful active Palio rider with 13 wins, and emerging jockey Giovanni 'Tittia' Atzeni.

The director's impressive production team includes Amy and Senna producer James Gay-Rees, The Program and Philomena editor Valerio Bonelli (who is also Spender's husband), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and The Last King of Scotland composer Alex Heffes and Fire In Babylon DoP Stuart Bentley.

The film was financed by London-based investment firm Archimedia, owned by John Hunt.

Amy sales and distribution outfit Altitude handle international sales and will release in collaboration with Picturehouse in the UK on September 25.

The ultimate subject

"Palio was the ultimate subject for me as a documentary maker," says Spender, who has described the exhilarating and brutal race as "a medieval game of strategy, deals and machinations".

At first, Spender's choice of the mild-mannered Giovanni as a focus proved controversial.

"The producers were a little antsy when I told them I was focusing on Giovanni. But I chose him because he was an insider-outsider, like me: an English woman who grew up in Italy."

"When we started I knew what the themes would be but we also knew we couldn't get into too much depth and wouldn't be lucky enough to follow the race winners," she continues. "No film about the Palio has ever achieved that."

Spender and the team had to navigate various layers of local politics.

"The Italian's are obsessed with the Bella Figura so some were unhappy about Aceto [colourful jockey Andrea Degortes] being in it. Then Gigi didn't want to be filmed after not winning one or two Palios so we had to go through Mark Getti. Also, Giovanni's wife is the ex-girlfriend of one of the other jockeys so that brought difficulties when capturing his home life."

Hurdles

Access was always the greatest hurdle.

"It's a very guarded world," explains the filmmaker. "You must get the local authorities' permission for everything, even if you want to print an image of a symbol of a contrada on a t-shirt. They own all rights to images."

"[Among features] Only James Bond [Quantum of Solace] had previously managed to put cameras in the Piazza Del Campo, I think. …

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