For most people, the 1976 British feature “Sebastiane” is recalled as the debut directing venture of Derek Jarman (which he actually co-directed with Paul Humfress) and as being the first film where all of the dialogue is in Latin. Viewed today, in an extremely belated DVD and home video debut, “Sebastiane” comes across as one of the most profound films about religion ever conceived.
Of course, no one is going to confuse “Sebastiane” with “The Song of Bernadette.” The film earned an X rating when it was first released due to its graphic and unapologetic celebration of the homoerotic experience. While Jarman clearly took some historic liberties in the name and spirit of the then-nascent queen cinema in crafting the story of the life and martyrdom of St. Sebastian, the resulting film and its excessive portrayal of mano-a-mano relations actually serves to provide (no pun intended) a means to an end.
“Sebastiane” takes place at an isolated Roman army outpost in Sardinia of 303 AD. Sebastian is among a group of soldiers who fell out of favor with the Emperor and has been assigned to a remote area where there is absolutely nothing for the soldiers to do. To relieve their boredom, they engage in a variety of activities that often cross the line into crass hedonism. Several soldiers also enjoy blatant and open homosexual relationships, to the amusement and emotional support of the others. The sole exception is Sebastian, who had become familiar with Christianity while in Rome and who rejects the boisterous and lascivious environment which his comrades have created. The change in his personality angers and obsesses Severus, the commander of the unit, though it becomes fairly obvious that Severus has the hots for Sebastian but Sebastian will not return the emotion.
Severus orders Sebastian to be tortured by flogging and by being tied down to stakes in the sand. Despite the pain and humiliation, Sebastian is driven closer to his concept of freedom through faith. Unable to break Sebastian’s spirit or to gain his love, Severus has Sebastian tied to a pole and orders the soldiers to fire arrows into his body. One by one, Sebastian’s fellow soldiers pierce his body with arrows. Sebastian’s agony is prolonged and gruesome, but with his eventual death comes a liberation which the surviving soldier can never experience.
Jarman came to co-direct “Sebastiane” after working as an A.D. for Ken Russell, and Russell’s influence is fairly obvious in many of the film’s over-the-top excessive visuals. The opening sequence, an orgy in Rome where naked men covered in body paint dance while wearing comically exaggerated penises, is so outlandish that it would seem that Russell elbowed Jarman out of the way to helm this happening. Throughout the scenes in Sardinia, the soldiers are viewed in various states of undress and often run about completely naked. The total abandonment of morals among the soldiers is so intense that it seems like Jarman wickedly revised history with a decided lavender hue. In one extended sequence, two men engage in passionate playtime while splashing in a pond (the scene was shot in artistic slow-motion and mirrored with a haunting score by Brian Eno). After a while, though, this kind of action creates no offense or shock since becomes such a fairly commonplace sight to see a phallus swinging about before the camera (cue the expression that begins “If you’ve seen one…”).
If Jarman’s body of work is any indication, “Sebastiane” was clearly not intended to pay tribute to Christian theology or martyrdom. That is certainly not evident with its frequent boy-meets-boy coupling, which would try the patience of even the most liberal of heterosexual theologians, but in its own way (perhaps unintentional) the film actually achieves the goal of celebrating God in the midst of the tomfoolery. With Sebastian surrounded by a company of h***y homosexuals and gay-indulgent fellow travelers, he retreats further and further into himself and focuses on the love of Jesus and the promise of a better world. His rejection of the flesh, as well as the violence of his mission as a soldier, makes him emotionally and physically isolated from his surroundings even when he is in the midst of the other men.
Yet Sebastian does not try to convert the others, which makes his embrace of Christianity more mystical and mysterious–and, perhaps, even sexier to Severus, whose failure to conquer Sebastian leads to tragedy. By portraying Sebastian’s religious mania as an internalized condition rather than a full-blown dramatic conversion, the film offers an honest view of one man’s private struggle with faith and how this inner conflict creates quakes around him.
In his martyrdom, Sebastian accepts death rather than live in a society which he views as debauched and repugnant. The victory belongs to Sebastian, who never gave up what he believed in and never surrendered to those he could no longer respect. The film’s final shot, with the soldiers holding their empty bows and looking at the results of their marksmanship, is chilling and devastating: a warped society destroying what it cannot understand or control, and realizing too late the horror of its actions.
“Sebastiane” is an intelligent and provocative work of art. Its reappearance is a fine reminder of Jarman’s unique talent and his willingness to take on difficult subjects with a frank and adult style.