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The Last Victory

cast: Edigio Mecacci, Paolo Rossi, Alma Savini, Roberto Papei, and Camilla Marzucchi

director: John Appel

85 minutes (PG) 2003 widescreen ratio 16:9
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Hope festoons this documentary film. Even in the title. Does The Last Victory point to one final win for the Italian community of Civetta at the annual il Palio, a chancy bareback horseracing event that takes place in il Piazzo del Campo in Siena, Tuscany? Well, that is not going to be the case, they are unlikely to cease a ritual that dates back to the Middle Ages. The title depressingly, and distressingly for the Civettine, back to the last time they won the race in 1979. Civetta is one of 17 contrades, clearly demarked districts of the Italian borough in question, and as the smallest community any victory would be duly magnified. A 35 times winner, the community has come first place eight times during the last 92 years, of particular relevance to Egidio Mecacci, as that is his age, and he would dearly love to see the Civettine celebrate one last time before conceding to his mortality. Is 2002 to be that year?

The Last Victory is not a film that fascinates, it merely holds interest, is not pushy in the way many modern documentaries are, but remains traditional. Too many new documentary filmmakers are keen to unnecessarily import their face to in front of the camera in a grubby attempted shortcutting to fame, mistaking themselves more important than their subjects. Mark Appel is a more honourable filmmaker, leaves it to the subjects to tell the story, largely has no choice, as in additional notes he admits he does not speak the Italian language, that the language and cultural barriers were part of the self-imposed challenge. It is an uncluttered documentary, the story told through the minimum number of people and voices, two elderly residents and two of the youthful, further balanced by their sex, young and old men and women, but neither of them couples. The only other featured personalities are The Capitano, a local restaurateur appointed to the post of the organiser for his side and the jockey, nicknamed The Whirlwind. Neither of them addresses the camera though they are occasionally heard or overheard, and there is a perceptible shiftiness to the Capitano in particular. One suspects that the Capitano has reason to be wary of the cinematic record. For all the honour and pride sought and spoken about in another possible win, there is a generally understood and accepted underhandedness to proceedings. The jockeys make favours to one another and there are hinted tales of money influencing the outcome. When the race comes, the false starts are played out in full, but the main event is cut to and mostly away from, focusing on the mortified viewers collected in the street around a television set, inevitably removing any possible inspection of the actual race and in the verity of jockeys sincerity and their attempts to win.

The Civettine are not the least successful district and it is mentioned that the community of Torre has been waiting for 41 years for a win. Egidio bemoans how the lack of a success in Il Palio has resulted in a lack of enthusiasm and participation among the youth of Civetta. If that is the case then the film, in the absence of a narration, has not honestly conveyed the full story as the impression given is of an overwhelming and all-encompassing passion in the community for the event. Appel confesses in a recent Time Out interview, that accompanies the film in transcription as a disc extra, that he "Didn't know what to film." His adventure was to investigate a tradition in a language he could not speak nor understand. He asked few questions and leaves a lot unanswered. If you want to know how it is that there are 17 contrades but only 10 are represented in the race, then you are going to have to search beyond the film for the reason, though it would appear that the first step is to qualify as a team for entry. Channel Four in 2003 took a meatier close-up look at Il Palio in a commendable short series on modern life in Tuscany and so the race may be not be as unfamiliar to British viewers, though there was a brutal and tormented edge to that series that has been excused here. Appel is not telling the whole story and does not pretend to be, though in focusing on the story of one district in that one year, it does have the unfortunate effect of turning it into the story of all Sienese. Without any other behind the scenes district practices, not even a single street outside Civetta or Il Piazza, you can't but copy the experience into all, with multiples of Egidio, Paolo, Alma and Camilla, and reflections of their stories.

Passions are high. Paolo the 21-year-old stable hand, who readies and tends the courtyard and 'stable' for the horse that will only arrive via lottery four days before, speaks of the orgasmic sensation that comes with winning even though he was not alive when last his people won and this can be no more than Italianesque exaggeration. When the race is over violence among the factions is very likely and punches are thrown, even the camera and its operator coming in on the receiving end of fists. Edigio cannot even bear to watch the race in company and in the several hours up until and including the race he chooses to spend it alone, with his television set. The youths are brought up to love their district. The stage at which the 'right horse' is drawn from the tombola produces ecstatic celebration whereas any hint of losing the race invokes the greatest anguish.

Disc extras are the Time Out interview with the director, the trailer for the film and a selection of trailers for other documentaries on release by Metrodome including The Corporation, Bus 173 and Spellbound.
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