I love a good underdog sports story. Oh, it’s a familiar narrative, but there’s something in the time-honoured tale of overcoming the odds and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat that can’t help but resonate with me. Palio then, which pits plucky newcomer Giovanni Atzeni against veteran champion – and mentor – Luigi “Gigi” Bruschelli in Italy’s famous horse race of the same name, should have been right up my alley.
But while Cosima Spender’s documentary exhibits undeniable formal prowess, capturing the scale and intimacy of the titular race simultaneously, it never quite succeeds as the underdog narrative it wants to be. By interrogating Bruschelli’s success – “to win 13 times in 16 years proves he’s better off the horse than on the horse” – revealing the (barely-concealed) bribery and corruption at the heart of Palio, it cheapens Atzeni’s struggle even as it tries to establish a villain.
Arguably that’s the point. But Palio, for all its revelations and thrills, rarely digs too deeply into the race’s corrupt foundation. Nor does it substantively link the race’s dishonesty to wider Italian culture or delve into issues of animal welfare. Palio’s an entertaining film, but one that doesn’t quite succeed as documentary nor sports movie.