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6 October 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:49pm

Can we call Palio a documentary if it doesn’t address animal cruelty?

The film follows two jockeys in the famous Italian bareback horse race, but declines to explore the cruelty of the sport it celebrates.

By Joe Devine

Vivid and exhilarating, Cosimer Spender’s new film Palio is a welcome addition to this year’s big screen documentary releases. The film documents a season of the Palio, a bi-annual, bareback horse race taking place in the centre of Sienna, Italy. Following two jockeys, Spender dissects the months of physical, mental and financial preparation leading up to two amusingly corrupt, 90-second races.

With its significant tradition and comical levels of pageantry, the Palio would be better described as one part horse race and five parts pantomime. Perhaps more akin to a mass re-enactment, jockeys and supporters don customary costumes and the colours of their districts, and march through cobbled city streets singing rude songs about rivals.

The race itself is thrillingly dangerous, more gladiator than Grand National. Horses throwing jockeys is a regular occurrence, with many smashing into the walls of the narrow and tight angled course, and an innovative rider’s point-of-view camera shot gives the viewer an insight into the terrifying speed of the race.

Brimming with masculinity, Palio is an engrossing exhibition of force, corruption and drama. Lots and lots of drama.

However, the film candidly avoids the question of animal cruelty. Barring a single shot of a horse bleeding from its hindquarters after a race, no mention is made of individual critics, or of the substantial animal rights organisations that vehemently oppose the Palio. Though the statistics wildly vary depending on the source, some calculations suggest that a total of 48 horses have died since 1970 as a result of accidents sustained during the race.

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The omission of this large and seemingly crucial aspect means that, whilst this film is undoubtedly a creative achievement, it is not a documentary.

Of course, this claim levelled at all documentaries would be silly. It is clearly not possible to examine every whim and interpretation of the documentary subject, however, in the case of Palio, the issue seems rather pertinent. In 2010, Italian politician Michela Brambilla – who at the time was the Minister for Tourism – openly suggested banning the Palio. According to Brambilla, injuries and fatalities to the horses were damaging to the national image.

Though it might be fair to assume that this statement was made purely out of political necessity – with Catalonia banning bull fighting just weeks prior – the issue of animal cruelty is clearly prevalent. While it might be fine to neglect mentioning new age religion in a documentary about Michael Jackson, it’s less acceptable to document the working life of Margaret Thatcher and ignore the Falklands.

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With this in mind, it is fair to question Palio’s status as a documentary. When a film maker very deliberately ignores a crucial aspect of their subject (and it is deliberate. See Geoffrey MacNab’s Independent review in which he suggests that were the issue of animal cruelty examined, “the mystique of the documentary would be shattered”), they endorse a selective message. This might not be an issue for cinema generally, but calculated meaning is rather antonymous with what should arguably be an unbiased communication of fact.

There is a difference between a fiction and the absence of fact, but when it comes to cinema, there’s a line between the two. Palio crosses this line in the same fashion that Straight Out of Compton does, choosing to avoid the issue of domestic violence. Yet, where Dr Dre escapes under the small print of the “biopic”, or that handy phrase “based on”, Palio does not. Describing Palio as a documentary immediately places the film in a position of moral ambiguity.

Interestingly, the concept of genre blurring has become increasingly popular across many forms of art and entertainment. Historical fiction is now a prominent and fashionable prose within the literary world, and back in 2005, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces – originally marketed as a memoir, then later as “semi-fictional” when it was discovered that many of the events in the book never happened – provoked an interesting debate about genre, and the value of art promoted inaccurately.

So, what value does Palio have as a documentary? The answer is little. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw describes the film as having “a promo look to it occasionally, like a lavish tourist ad”. In these terms, its neglect to mention animal cruelty is understandable, but entirely unforgivable, and although it dutifully attempts to investigate the corruption surrounding the race, it does even this with a humorously light touch. More Louis Theroux than Columbo.

Were the burden of this title dismissed, however, and the film described in general terms as a piece of art, there would be no issue. Whilst it’s difficult to transcend the confines of genre, it’s possible to expand them – films like Palio, and co-producer James Gay Rees’ other efforts, including Senna and Amy, could do with, and are deserving of a brand new genre to hang their hats on.

Palio holds its heart and its balls in the same hand, and depending on your perspective, is either an ethically ambiguous documentary, or a very exciting, very good film.