Dir: Derek Jarman, Paul Humfress | Score: Brian Eno | UK Drama 86′
Derek Jarman aimed to dignify his voyeuristic gay romp on the beach by basing it on the legend of a martyred Catholic saint 17,000 years ago. His Sebastiane is a lowly Roman soldier exiled due to his religious beliefs to a remote Sardinian outpost along with a small platoon of buff but bored fellow combatants, and he falls foul of his gay commander’s advances, and eventually the rest of the men. Jarman tries elevate Sebastiane to almost Christ-like proportions yet there is nothing in the story, as he tells it, that is remotely worthy of such. Religious beliefs aside, Sebastiane rejects his suitor simple because he doesn’t find him appealing.
Back in the 1970s this was ground-breaking stuff, as gay porn – or any other kind of porn – was almost not-existent: the opening scene at Emperor Diocletian’s Christmas party sees the all male revellers rocking massive phalluses and festive masks; then beachside in Sardinia with full erections, lots of slow-mo snogging and close-ups of naked bottoms and rippling muscles. They certainly must have had fun on that shoot which was filmed naturalistically in three and a half weeks by a professional crew and largely non-pro cast. Brian Eno’s minimalist sound design now feels rather dated, as does the gay subject matter, but it’s easy to criticise in hindsight because the world has obviously moved on, and Peter Middleton’s photography and Jarman’s mise en scene still remain spectacular and evocative. Shame then, about the slim narrative. Sebastiane flopped at the box office all over Europe, and lost the Stones’ their money.
Yet there are important themes at play in this remarkable piece of independent filmmaking: religious intolerance is of course the most important one; but there is also submissiveness versus domination; the role of the outsider and the underdog. And Jarman sees Sebastiane as the eternal victim of society. Quite why the dialogue is in Latin is an anomaly. Ordinary soldiers would speak Italian, as Latin was spoken only by scholars and dignitaries at that time. Is this another attempt to elevate the characters, or simply to make them sound more exotic and alluring?
Nowadays Sebastiane might be criticised for animal cruelty: at one point the soldiers chase down a small piglet, taunting and butchering it savagely with sticks. There are also racist taunts mocking Jews and Christians alike. But it is the storyline that is the least adventurous aspect of the feature, with Jarman overplaying the voyeurism at the expense of telling us a fascinating and little known tale about another man who suffered for his religious conviction. A missed opportunity despite its artistic merit. MT
SEBASTIANE IS ON BLURAY AND ITUNES FROM 18 MARCH 2019