Early in the 2008 James Bond film “The Quantum of Solace” are scenes filmed at one of the 2007 runnings of the Palio di Siena.
I used the plural “runnings” for good reason, which you’ll see later in the post.
On the surface, the scenes shot at the Palio appear to be colorful backdrop in an exotic locale. But, when I finally got to watch the movie, I noticed a bit of storytelling depth there.
What?? Depth in a James Bond movie?? Are you high??
Nope. But let’s take a look at the race’s history first before I show you what I saw. Then, maybe you’ll see that the inclusion of the race in the film was not just a gratuitous use of a fast-paced event in an exotic locale.
History and basics
The race has its origins in a religious celebration in 1656 to honor a local sighting of an apparition of the Virgin Mary. In the nearly four centuries following, the Palio has become a secular event.
For a look into the cultural significance of the Palio, check out this video.
The race is run twice each summer, on July 2 and August 16. Hence, the plural “runnings.” The course runs three times around the piazza for about a distance of 1070 meters. A special mixed footing is laid down on the stone surface before the race, as is special padding on some of the sharp turns, as seen in this diagram of the unusually-shaped Palio course.
The padding comes in handy, especially for the riders who are not US jockey-sized. Plus, the Palio’s riders ride bareback.
The horses each represent a contrada, or a neighborhood, like a city within a city. Each contrada can have its own coat of arms, government, officials, nobility — and a racing stable. Ten of the 17 contrada usually enter the Palio.
For those of us more accustomed to the starchy-and-controlled-by-comparison American horse racing, watching the Palio can raise some eyebrows. Before you watch this video from the 2008 Palio , you should know that it’s a rough and tumble race. And, yes, it’s true that in 2004, a horse died during the race.
So, what about the horses?
You’ll notice in that video above that this isn’t a risk-free race. Headlines about protests over the Palio’s inclusion in the movie fueled some early buzz for QoS.
But let’s take a look at recent changes in safety, as written about in this article by Helen Elizabeth Sadler about the Palio’s horses .
As Sadler explains, the horses are now mixed breeds, who Palio organizers have deemed stronger than purebred horses. (I wonder what the Jockey Club might have to say about that?) The horses receive a pre-race exam by a veterinarian.
As you watch the film, you can see the deep dirt footing that was spread on the piazza’s usual stone surface. I couldn’t spot the mattresses that are reportedly there in the sharp turns, where the risk is greater.
And in the YouTube video of the 2008 Palio, you’ll see that the winning rider strips down to the protective vest that he’s wearing under his silks.
Speaking of “depth” …
The footage from the Palio appears early in the film and is a backdrop for a chase scene.
And a colorful backdrop it is. We see the parade of the contrada banners that preceed the race, the drop of the starting rope, and then they’re off careening around the piazza. All the while, Bond is chasing bad guys over and through Renaissance-era buildings.
I’ll try to avoid plot spoilers. After all, every Bond film includes several spectacular chase scenes.
So — is the inclusion of the Palio just an addition of exotic color and intensified action?
Actually, it makes a plot point, even though Bond films aren’t known for any use of symbolism or other literary techniques.
But it’s possible that maybe you can take the girl out of the literature class, but you can’t take the lit class out of the girl.
As I watched the film, I thought about how the race is a contest between the contrada, the neighborhoods. In other words, a large group of people with regional loyalties — residents of Siena neighborhoods — are divided for this contest and competing for a prize.
Although the film doesn’t show it, the winner of the Palio receives a banner, along with a year’s worth of bragging rights and celebrations, kind of like the parties after the Baseball World Series wins but carried on for months.
Actually, in the film, you do see a jubilant girl waving her contrada’s winning colors after winning the race.
So, think of what happens when “your team” wins the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Soccer World Cup. That kind of regional pride and getting “what’s yours” plays out in the rest of the movie.
And that’s all I can say without blabbing some plot points.
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