Friday Editor’s Pick: Sebastiane (1976)

by on October 22, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Oct 28 at 7:00 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]


Not enough has been written about Sebastiane, Derek Jarman’s hypnotically stylized no-costume drama about the martyred saint and proto-twink icon, Saint Sebastian. Catch this landmark of queer cinema on the big screen, as Jarman’s lovingly filmed cock shots were intended to be seen. Plus the score is by Brian Eno, and the screenplay is in classical Latin. Gaudemaus igitur, boys.


Tony Rayns for Time Out (London):

Not exactly typical of the British independent cinema, this not only tackles an avowedly ‘difficult’ subject (the relationship between sex and power, and the destructive force of unrequited passion), but does so within two equally ‘difficult’ frameworks: that of exclusively male sexuality, and that of the Catholic legend of the martyred saint, set nearly 1,700 years ago. Writer/director Jarman sees Sebastian as a common Roman soldier, exiled to the back of beyond with a small platoon of bored colleagues, who gets selfishly absorbed in his own mysticism and then picked on by his emotionally crippled captain. It’s filmed naturalistically, to the extent that the dialogue is in barracks-room Latin, and carries an extraordinary charge of conviction in the staging and acting. One of a kind, it’s compulsively interesting on many levels.


Sebastiane was not received without controversy, from straight and gay audiences alike. Thomas Waugh appends his original scathing review (“The film is so clumsy and unpersuasive in its pretentions to seriousness that it would probably work as camp were it not so tedious”), reprinted in The Fruit Machine: Twenty Years of Writings on Queer Cinema, with this introduction:


Of all the pieces in The Fruit Machine, this is perhaps the one I am most ashamed of, the one where I was the most wrong, wrong, wrong. Why did I respond so fiercely to Sebastiane? Perhaps I was unable to distance my critical response from my own troubled arousal by all those nude Roman soldiers playing frisbee, my own indifference to S/M, and my own missionary moralism about liberation politics. I vividly recall that night in the beautiful Outremont cinema (not yet ravaged by mallism) but can hardly believe it was that much of a novelty to be in a crowd of 700 gay men those days in Montreal. We take a lot for granted in the nineties. The first San Francisco gay and lesbian film festival had begun the previous year, and embryonic queer film events were stirring here as well. The decade of cinematic famine was coming to an end, and the delirious energy of the eighties, of which Jarman was the central figure, was prophetically evident in that film I didn’t get….I’m sorry, Derek.


Fernando F. Croce write a witty summary for CinePassion:

Derek Jarman looks at Sebastian and sees what Botticelli (and Perugino, Reni and Mishima) saw, the lambent space between spiritual and sexual longing. The bacchanalian opening (a painted Lindsay Kemp writhing at the center of a mock-circle jerk, a harlot in nylons cattily acknowledged) gets Fellini out the system, the better to switch to Pasolini in rocky Sardinian expanses, where Roman soldiers are stationed in codpieces. Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) rises from bed “like dew in a spider’s web” and pours water over himself in a jubilant queer version of the gratuitous shower scene; Severus (Barney James) the smitten centurion marvels at this passage and then storms away, frustrated. The warriors spend their hours fondling swords until the young Christian outcast refuses to take part in gladiatorial games, and the martyrdom (out of Billy Budd, Un Chant d’Amour, Querelle) commences. His body is flogged, doused with milk, tied in the sand, yet Sebastian stays cool, off in a reverie that mingles faith and narcissism (“The doors have been opened,” he tells his own reflection in the water). Jarman relaxes and drinks in the homo spectacle, he employs earthy Latin very humorously (“You’re worse than a Greek,” goes one taunt) and painterly effects very fluently (the handheld camera adopts the bound martyr’s POV underneath the blasting sun, and suddenly you’ve got a Mantegna). Above all, he candidly summons forth the gay spirits submerged in the Hollywood Biblical epic, contrasting the mockery of the first tableau with dance-like caresses by the river. Each man kills the thing he loves, though Severus ordering Sebastian’s execution also suggests the consummation of his desire for this saintly tease — penetration finally takes place via arrows, Jarman sends his saint into religious and erotic iconography in a fisheye vista.



The metaphorical levels of the film can be difficult to decode, and are perhaps to be of secondary importance to its experiential effect, and its self-awareness of its own cultural place in contemporary cinema. Roderick Heath touches on these questions for Ferdy on Films:


Sebastiane, Jarman’s first film, codirected with Paul Humfress, ventured into new realms of lucid, unveiled, homoerotic image-making, conflated with an effervescent intellectual blend of classicist humour and spiritual seriousness. Unlike the odious Peter Greenaway, with whom Jarman shared dominance of the British arthouse scene in the ’80s, Jarman’s cinema was urgent and personal in its provocations and learned references, angrily ransacking the massed detritus of the European cultural tradition for forms and voices through with to articulate his peculiar aesthetic. Based around the life and martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Humfress’ and Jarman’s film aggressively appropriates the barely veiled rendering of the saint as a sadomasochistic erotic object in Renaissance painting for their own ends, reconstructing him as a gay icon. Sebastiane has a claim to a certain distinction for being the first film made entirely in Latin, even going so far as to have a translator render patches of the dialogue in the vulgar form for deeper authenticity. As such, it stands as an influence—or at least prefiguration—of a film like Mel Gibson’s similarly antiquarian, S&M-hued religious work The Passion of the Christ (2003), a film motivated by polar opposite moral and philosophical urges.


Sebastiane actually follows a very familiar narrative line for religious epics, depicting the attempt of a pagan Roman to browbeat his rapturous Christian love object into surrendering his or her body and thus, implicitly, his or her ideals; in the likes of The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Quo Vadis? (1951), the love object was female. Here the love object is Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio), and the film is closer to the eroticised beefcake-suffering of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959). In spite of the feeling of authenticity in the photography and the use of Latin dialogue, strict realism is a long way from Jarman’s mind, and this is soon apparent in the anachronistic touches that dot the film.


Heath continues:

The body is a war zone throughout the film, strong and lustrous, yet also disturbingly vulnerable, easily damaged, abused, and controlled; the only riposte is the untouchable and inviolable soul, which is why Sebastian crushingly rejects Severus late in the film when he tells him he can have his body but never have him. The scene in Diocletian’s court establishes the atmosphere of physical ferocity, where murder is casual and the entertainment a plain parable for rape and exploitation. Jarman jams his camera in the gruesomely made-up face of the “female” dancer writhing under faux-ejaculate, and the bloodied mouths of slaves as one strangles the other in a dizzying image of animalistic humanity. The Emperor’s exile of Sebastian is the necessary gambit to his assassination, and yet the remote location and the vagueness of their mission causes the men to feel the weight of whatever angst they suffer, from Maximus’s basic desire to get back to Rome and hole up with a prostitute, through to Severus’ inability to obtain his obsession, whilst Sebastian finds the path to his destiny through unimaginable cruelty. Jarman sets up dichotomies—abusive strength, religious fervour, Roman decadence—but doesn’t easily separate them. The basic joke is easy enough to grasp: the Christian in this context is the outcast, aberrant, abused figure, mocked for effeminacy and arrogance, not the homosexual. Jarman seems to be trying to depict a moment in time in which humanity evolved from a purely physical creature into something deeper and better, but also less coherent and natural.


Jarman doesn’t make the Christian emblematic of a desexualised ideal about to supplant the free and easy paganism. Sebastian’s idealisation shares a certain homoerotic tone with John Donne’s Fourteenth Holy Sonnet (“Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”), envisioning God as an invasive, beauteous, erotic force. Brian Eno’s eerie, electronic score pulsates throughout with spacey beauty, underscoring scenes alternately banal, bizarre, and violent, constantly suggesting weird, transformative potential even as the vision on screen is perpetually searching for suggestions of transcendence in the utterly physical.


Brian Hoyle deems Jarman a “Radical Traditionalist,” for Senses of Cinema:

Critically problematic to a fault, to many he remains a marginal figure whose highly personal body of work is too experimental to be considered mainstream; yet his work is also ironically viewed as being too artistically conservative and conventional to be wholly accepted by the avant-garde. To his admirers, however, Jarman was at the centre of what Peter Wollen called “the Last New Wave”, Britain’s belated answer to the great Modernist movements in post-war Continental art cinema. For others still, Jarman has a significance that goes beyond his contributions to his own national cinema. One of the fathers of international “New Queer Cinema”, Jarman’s sexuality had always been a significant part of his work, but after his diagnosis as HIV it became its “principal, determining factor”.


Jarman saw himself as a queer artist following in the footsteps of Jean Cocteau and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and like his forebears, was an inveterate polymath – a notable painter, set-designer, writer, gardener and political activist – who nevertheless remains best remembered for his films. Jarman was, however, a Renaissance man in more than one sense. Indeed, five of his eleven feature films centre around the “interface between the Renaissance and the present”, an historical space that Jarman made his own, and which is essential to one’s understanding of his work. It is in his fascinating, often original and at times controversial engagement with the past – the art, literature and cultural heritage of Britain and Europe – that Jarman proved himself to be the true successor to Pasolini. Indeed, Jarman felt a kinship with the Italian director not only as a fellow queer filmmaker, but also as another critically problematic director who had gained an unshakable, though partly undeserved, reputation for controversy, despite being largely drawn to “traditional” material. Indeed, as Jarman himself noted of his own work, “Shakespeare, the Sonnets, Caravaggio, [Benjamin] Britten’s [War] Requiem, what more traditional subject matter could a film-maker take on? And yet I’m still seen by some as a menace.”



Hoyle on the film:

Stylistically speaking, Jarman’s debut, Sebastiane, finds him still looking for the distinctive directorial voice he would find in later films. Yet Sebastiane is still assured of a place in film history, not least for the fact that it was the first film shot entirely in Latin. More than just an eccentric footnote however, Jarman’s retelling of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was a pivotal British film for a number of other reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it was the first openly homoerotic British film. Indeed, the musician Holly Johnson saw the film as “an affirmation that homosexuality could be beautiful, shameless and out in the open”. Tilda Swinton, the actress who became Jarman’s friend and muse after Caravaggio, echoes this, stating that “Sebastiane was, for so many, nothing short of a miracle”. The film treated homosexual love with a strong sense of romanticism, lyricism and above all, seriousness. Despite a number of witty moments – the subtitle translation of the name Oedipus as “motherfucker” particularly stands out – it unquestionably sought to revise the representation of homosexuality in British cinema, particularly the camp portrayal of “queer” characters in comedies such as the Carry On films. Jarman even altered the standard Latin spelling of the Saint’s name, Sebastianus, to the vocative form, Sebastiane (O, Sebastian), to prevent the film’s title being subjected to crass innuendo.


Sebastiane also acted as an unlikely wake-up call to the ailing British film industry. Tony Rayns called it, “[t]he most promising sign of new film life in independent narrative cinema in [Britain] in many, many years” and the film’s appearance “[in] the mid seventies, with British cinema at an all time low”, could not have been more timely.


William Pencak offers a comprehensive analysis of the sexual politics of Sebastiane in The Films of Derek Jarman:

Jarman rewrites the traditional story of Sebastian, the handsome young Christian martyr whose image, named or nearly so and shot full of arrows on a stake, has been a staple of religious iconography through the centuries. Instead of exalting the steadfast saint, Jarman wrote that “Sebastian, the doolally Christian who refuses a good fuck, gets the arrows he deserved. Can one feel sorry for this Latin closet case? Stigmata Seb who sports his wounds on a thousand altars like a debutante.”


Jarman reconstructs history by refusing to accept the Christians’ view of their spiritual purity and renunciation of the world at face value. Instead, he presents a somewhat sympathetic case for the Romans so offended by Christianity. Sebastian, like the Christians in general, rejected “a plural sexuality. He prays to a solar conquering god Apollo, Mithras, Christ, who demands his ‘whole’ attention.”


Sebastiane consists of a series of scene with consistent symbolism running through them. The sun is the most important image, and is identified with Christ and Apollo, in both cases representing a single God in contrast to the Roman pantheon, signifying masculine beauty and its worship. The four traditional elements – earth, air, water, and fire – also appear to show how the entire universe offers opportunities for the celebration of sexuality. Jarman thereby implies that both Christian self-denial and Roman self-indulgence are rooted in the same, largely homosexual, impulses



Pencak concludes:

In his single-minded worship of self, sun, and Christ, Sebastian symbolizes traditional Christianity’s unnatural rejection of a diverse, pleasurable world in favor of absorption with personal salvation and the penchant to mock, pity, or relegate to Hell those who failed to share their asceticism. To his credit, Jarman also exposed the gross indecency of the Romans in both court and barracks, providing yet another complicating layer that interprets Christianity as a plausible if exaggerated response to Roman excess.


[…] [T]he receipt of surrogate penises for those he refused to allow into his body becomes the means of Sebastian’s death. As he dies, the men who executed him slowly and reverently bow down to the beautiful corpse on the stake, much as we have admired the young martyr’s body in art ever since. By forcing us to think what sort of person this Sebastian – whom history only records as a highly placed soldier who converted to Christianity and suffered a gruesome martyrdom – might have been, Jarman summons us to look deeply into ourselves and our culture, and to confront honestly the sexual underpinnings of art, literature, religion, power, and day-to-day social relations.


And here’s the money shot:

-Compiled by Maxwell Wolkin

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