Sebastiane (1976)

Directed by Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman.

Written by Paul Humfress, Derek Jarman, and James Whaley.

Cinematography by Peter Middleton.

Starring Barney James, Neil Kennedy, and Leonardo Treviglio.

Sebastiane is one of Jarman’s first feature films, a major forerunner of the New Queer Cinema movement that took off in the 1990s, and the first (and probably the last) film with dialogue exclusively in Latin. The influence the film had on Todd Haynes’ Poison, the first gay male film to win a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, cannot be overestimated. So, while Sebastiane may not seem entirely successful as a film in and of itself, it succeeds admirably as a first.

Jarman’s previous training as a stage designer is readily apparent here, as in most of his work. The sumptuous colors, elaborate mise-en-scenes, and period costumes contribute to much of the film’s appeal, and Jarman’s talent as a music video director for artists like The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys can be discerned from the bizarre opening sequence in which ancient Romans dance in bizarre phallic costumes. Famous glam-rocker and Ambient music inventor Brian Eno’s score music sets a heightened and visceral tone.

The story is simple and dreamlike, centering around the Christian saint-to-be who refuses to fight or even train for battle while stationed in the desert with pagan soldiers who mock his religiosity and a general who lusts for him. Saint Sebastiane is gay, of course (this subtext has apparently been noted in depictions of the saint since the Renaissance), and he pines for another soldier who returns his affections but begs him to abandon his ideals in order to survive. Sebastiane, of course, chooses martyrdom over fleshly pursuits, which in this movie seems like a natural choice. As one soldier remarks in Latin, “what a waste of time, sitting in the desert, doing gymnastics all day”. The viewer might feel the same way, given that explicit homoeroticism is less likely to shock today as it did in the 1970s, when these kinds of depictions of a newly cohesive sexual identity were still a first.

The film is far less shocking than certain John Waters films made around the same time which had no gay characters but which used shock itself as a way to convey the filmmaker’s outsider status (and, by extension, his sexuality). Like a Waters film, the acting is amateurish, but here the characters seem to take themselves a bit too seriously, which is perhaps a necessary pitfall of the “period drama”. However, the film is nothing if not unique, and fits perfectly into any definition of the New Queer Cinema movement despite being released almost two decades before its conception.

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~ by Daniel N. Goldberg on June 6, 2011.

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