The Last Victory Review

The most flat-out entertaining new DVD I've seen this month has to be John Appel's superb 2003 documentary 'The Last Victory', a beautifully filmed, almost impressionistic account of the Palio in Siena. Held twice yearly, on July 2nd and August 16th, the Palio appears to outsiders to be a breathtakingly dangerous horserace carried out in the Tuscan city’s central square, the Piazza del Campo, in front of 100,000 screaming Italians. The Palio (the word actually refers to the coloured banner presented to the winner) is indeed a horserace – one lasting barely a minute and a half – but for Sienese its emotional and psychological importance goes much, much deeper. Even comparing its significance for the inhabitants of the city to that which bullfighting holds for the nation of Spain doesn’t quite do it justice. The earliest records date the Palio to the late 13th Century, but various sources intimate that it may be much older; essentially, the ceremonial race is as old as Siena itself and spiritually inseparable from the city and its people.

Siena is divided into 17 contrade, or districts, each one of which has its own animal symbol, its own colours and flag, its own social network, carefully documented history and complex system of alliances and enmities with other contrade. Identification with one’s contrada is much deeper and more fundamental than simply living in a suburb or even being a life-long supporter of a football team. Sienese view membership of their particular contrada as being one of the most important aspects of their lives. "The district is a second family to every Sienese," says Paolo, one of the documentary’s subjects, "When something sad happens, he will cry as if it was his own family. If there is joy, he'll cheer along with the rest." Members of a contrada are baptized with the Holy Water of the District and emotionally and financially supported by other members when they need it. Every important life event - births, deaths, marriages and so on – is celebrated by and through the contrada.

Appel has chosen to focus on the contrada of Civetta, ‘The Owl’, for his documentary. Geographically one of the smallest contrade Civetta is nevertheless quite wealthy and has many allies including Istrice, ‘The Porcupine’, Aquila, ‘The Eagle’ and Pantera, ‘The Panther’. However, it is sworn enemies with Leocorno, ‘The Unicorn’ and has had to watch its bitter rival win no less than four times in the last decade. Worse, Civetta hasn’t won since 1979 (we’re shown black and white footage of this extraordinarily violent race). Accordingly expectations are high this year and the district’s elders are determined to get the best horse and the best rider possible. Doing so necessitates extremely arch political maneuvering, tactful manipulation of existing allies and – appropriately enough, given his north Italian origins – some extremely Machiavellian deal-making.

Beginning six weeks before the Palio, Appel shows us the preparations for the race from the point of view of several members of Civetta: Egidio, 92, has seen the district win eight times and wants to see just one more victory before he dies. Young beauty Alma has never witnessed the District's triumph and desperately wants to. Paolo, 21, has been given the crucial job of barbaresco for this Palio, looking after the District’s horse – once it’s chosen. At his age he can’t have seen Civetta’s last win, but he seems to have imagined it so often and so intensely that he’s made it real: "The only feeling that comes close to winning a Palio, is an orgasm," he says enthusiastically, "It's the greatest joy I know." Others busy themselves with flag-tossing, drumming and training as pages, or comparsa.

The key man in the run up to the Palio is the District's Capitano, who masterminds the District's strategy, choosing jockeys, organising the procession and negotiating the massively intricate system of relationships with other contrade in a way that will give best advantage to Civetta. Some of the poorer Districts, such as Bruco, the Caterpillar, will accept ‘donations’ in exchange for attacking other riders during the race. Fundamentally the Capitano must decide whether his strategy will be to try to win or to ensure that one of the sworn enemies of his contrada will lose. This is all understood and – as much as the phrase has any meaning in this context – ‘above board’. After all, it’s perfectly within the rules of the Palio for jockeys to hit each other with their riding crop…

By the time Appel’s documentary begins, six weeks before the event, an enormous amount has already been decided. You see, even though there are 17 contrade, only 10 may race in each Palio, the concept of 17 madly frothing equines hurtling around the cobbled square being apparently too much even for Sienese sensibilities. Thus the Capitanos retire twice each year to decide which contrade will race in each Palio and, of course, which three lucky Districts will get to race in both the July Palio and the August Palio. Obviously the different enmities and friendships between the contrade – and the various opportunities for deal-making that this presents – come to the fore at these meetings and, of course, what’s ‘officially’ agreed can always be unofficially changed, undone, altered or even reversed, more than once, not just in the many, many days and hours leading up to the event, but even in the last seconds before it begins; this is why there are always several false starts to a Palio, as it gives the riders the opportunity to make final offers of assistance or betrayal to each other, as instructed by their respective Capitano. “The Capitanos make pacts that they take to the grave with them," an onlooker informs us, "Secret agreements with jockeys and other Capitanos, to ensure that no one stands in their way. You know what a football player earns, you don't know what a jockey earns."

The atmosphere of intrigue, tension and anticipation continues to build to and beyond breaking point, as rumours of deals, meetings and agreements fly over every piazza and strada and through the shops and cafes of the sunlit city. On the third day before the Palio, the tratta are run; these are trials of the best horses in the area. The 10 best are selected and numbered. The entire city gathers in the main square and the horses are allotted to each District in a public lottery. The degree of tension in this scene is quite extraordinary; literally thousands of people are holding their breath as this is one part of the Palio over which the Capitanos have no control; they can pick their jockeys, but not their horses. A good horse will mean the contrada is one step nearer victory, a bad one may entail an entire change of strategy. As we watch Paolo chewing the top half of his thumb off, the Major reads out into a deafening silence: ‘Six. Berio.’ A long pause during which the Civetta men exchange murmurs of excitement; Berio is known to be the best horse and the winner of last year’s Palio. More agonizing seconds of silence, then: ‘Civetta’. Madness. Bedlam. The response is unbelievable. The entire District goes insane, laughing, shouting, singing and weeping. Paolo fetches the horse and leads it, accompanied by the entire contradasinging the Civetta song, to the stables where both it and the jockey are put under 24-hour guard; in the past the contrade have attempted to hurt both the horse and rider of enemies in order to achieve ultimate success (or possibly at the behest of another, richer contrada undertaking a covert sabotage strategy). They get a good jockey too, 'The Whirlwind'. "Is it tough to be the favourite?" a Civetta elder is asked, "No, it just costs us a bit more," he replies.

That evening the first of the trials is run, to acclimatize the horses to the course and the shrieking crowds. There are six trials in total, each one run in a different order, each one a mini-event in itself, accompanied by waving flags, shouting and much boosting of contrade spirit. The way the trials – and indeed the Palio itself – are run is worth mentioning. Nine of the horses line up horizontally in front of a rope held at chest height. The tenth horse, the rincorso stays well back from the starting line. When the judge of the race decides all the horses are lined up correctly and ready, a signal is given to the rincorso to start racing and when it passes a certain point, the rope is dropped and the other nine horses may start. In the case of the Palio, the riders then race three times around the square and the first to cross the finish line wins. Of course, there are many things that can and do go wrong with this arrangement, necessitating endless restarts. This can delay the start of the race for hours and, on occasion, necessitate the rescheduling of the race until the next day, if it becomes too dark. After the fifth trial race, the Prova Generale, each of the contrade hold a huge dinner in their main Piazza. Even for a small contrada such as Civetta this involves dozens of fifty-foot tables groaning with food and wine; for the larger contrade such as Chiocciola, it can mean seating and feeding over 3,000 people. This is referred to as a ‘dress rehearsal’ dinner and is merely a practice celebration for the true ‘victory banquet’ each contrada plans to hold the following evening.

Soon the day itself dawns. All of Siena is in a state of anguished tension. Those who can't make it into the Piazza itself gather around TV sets. Egidio chooses to watch alone in his apartment. 50,000 Sienese are packed into the main square with roughly the same number again seated at bleachers and watching from every possible balcony, window, roof and vantage point around the Piazza del Campo. After hours of medieval pageantry, the horses file slowly into the packed square, sending the massive crowd into a maniacal frenzy.

Slowly, one by one, amid the deafening sound of shouts, screams, horns and guns, the running order (decided prior to the race by an ancient random method involving a silver beaker) is read out: 'Chiocciola, Nicchio... Pantera, Civetta!' They've drawn fourth place. The horses, rearing madly, line up, the rincorso is set back, the cannon roars, the rope drops and they're off! But the gun fires again, sending the horses into a frenzy – a false start. They regroup at the rope, the cannon roars and they’re off again. Another false start! Finally they take off for real and go tearing madly around the square as if from the gates of hell itself…

I won’t spoil the result but, as in every Palio, it’s followed by vicious fist fights which break-out as accusations and counter-accusations fly. At one point the cameraman is knocked to the ground and kicked. One of the jockeys is beaten while another, who went flying into a wall during the race, is injured. The palio is over. Now the winner will march through the streets of the city, its victorious contrada singing, laughing and insulting its defeated enemies (particularly the contrada that came second, considered the most humiliating positioin to finish in) to the cathedral to thank God for the victory. Then the real celebrations will begin, while the losers moan, gnash their teeth and dream of revenge next year…

From its first, extraordinarily atmospheric beginning, in which an empty, sun-lit street is slowly filled with the uniformed, flag-tossing sons and daughters of Civetta, this documentary is utterly engrossing. Partly this is because it’s shot in a gorgeous location; the streets and squares of the medieval town, with its distinctive reddish brick and winding streets, is a fantastic place to photograph, especially under the kindly light and beautiful azure sky of the Mediterranean. Partly it’s because it features the Italians doing what they do best: being Italian. And partly it’s because it’s just a record of an extraordinary event, beautifully shot by Erik Van Empel, brilliantly edited by Mario Steenbergen and gifted with a beautiful, haunting score by Wouter van Bemmel.

This is adequate without being stunning. Certainly no problems. At time of going to web I didn’t know for sure if it was an anamorphic transfer or not, so I’ve marked it as non and will change if necessary.

It’s a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack and clearly presented throughout, important as the ambient noise of the town and its crowds plays a big part in creating the unique atmosphere of the Palio.

Special Features
Very little here. Four pages of text-only Q&A with writer and director John Appel, taken from an interview that originally appeared in Time Out, August 2004, in which he discusses his motivation for making the documentary, what it was like working with the people from the Civetta District and what he thinks of Michael Moore. The original Theatrical Trailer. Trailers for other Metrodome releases 'The Corporation', 'Spellbound', 'Bus 174', 'Last Party 2000' and 'Amandla'.

I should stress that a lot of the background that I’ve provided here isn’t touched on by the documentary. It eschews the traditional informative voice-over in favour of long, lingering shots of sun-drenched squares, flag-lined streets and expectant, jubilant or anguished faces. Viewers wanting a more educational treatment of the subject may therefore be disappointed but, having seen other more academic documentaries of the event, I loved this one’s more abstract approach, so full of atmosphere one can almost taste the pasta. The film's closing images, showing Egidio, Paolo and il Capitano returning to their regular lives – and Siena returning to its normal activities – says more about the nature of the Palio than any authoritative voice-over could. Egidio is without doubt the star of the show, a dapper Sienese near-centurion who has lived through two World Wars yet views the most important days of his life as those when Civetta won the Palio. One moment he’s serenading the lovely Civettines at a dinner, the next he’s picking fights with a busload of terrified German tourists. Bravo Egidio!

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