Derek Jarman's debut feature film created a firestorm of controversy over its frank portrayal of homosexuality, violence, and the ultimate martyrdom of the Catholic saint Sebastiane in 303 A.D. A visually striking fantasy, SEBASTIANE begins at the … see full wiki
Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane is similar to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (reviewed here http://www.epinions.com/content_240756559492): only for serious fans of either director.
Sebastiane and Battleship Potemkin broke new ground, were directed by iconic, or even iconoclastic directors, and have not really survived the test of time.
Sebastian begins when the Emperor Dioclecian has become paranoid because of several palace fires. He believes Christians to have set them, so he punishes many of them for this (not at all like Nero however, Dioclecian didn’t pick random people but Christians close to him for punishment). He sends his favorite captain of the guard, Sebastiane to a distant post and busts him down to simple soldier. The rest of the film takes place in a desert far from Rome in an outpost with 8 men. The leader of this band, Severus (Barney James) is passionately enthralled with Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio). Sebastiane is also similarly enthralled with Severus, but because he is Christian, he will not give in to his lusts and suffers torment at the hands of his captain/Adonis. This finally leads to Sebastiane’s martyrdom when he is tied to a tree and executed by being target practice for archers.
The film is the only one shot entirely in Latin. Not only that, but the Latin is proper for the ‘class’ of character speaking it, vulgar instead of scholarly. I have never cared for Latin, and this vulgar Latin is only interesting linguistically—especially since no one is really sure of the true pronunciations (this means that each actor’s native accent plays a role in how he says his lines such that the British actors have a different dialect than the Italian actors). The language is as harsh as the landscape.
Where it breaks new ground is in the frank depiction of homoerotic action. The men are all fit, as soldiers would have been, and spend time practicing (poorly) sword and shield play and wrestling (which they do well). They do all of this either in thongs or entirely naked. This frankness is a bit shocking; however it is funny to think that it would likely be more shocking today than it was when it was released in 1976.
It is a weak film overall and definitely a weak film by Mr. Jarman. Jarman was more a set director before he decided to make Sebastiane and the other gay or mostly gay bio-pics that followed, two of which Edward II and Carivaggio are among my favorites. His immaturity comes through in the lack of control over the film itself. It plays like 8 men given almost no direction other than, wrestle, bathe, tell jokes. The plot is very simple and would have taken half an hour to develop, tell, close; however, Jarman throws in unnecessary scenes of Sebastiane riding a horse for no reason and a goatherd moving his herd, among others.
However, there is artistry in the intimate scenes between Severus and Sebastiane and between the rest of the soldiers when they are mock battling or really bathing. It isn’t porn because it does tell an historic tale in a relatively authentic way. Some may see it as only prurience—which it does have—but I think that misses the whole point. If the film was set in any other time except perhaps the Hellenic era, it likely would be considered porn.
I want to recommend the movie for a general audience, but it is too rough and finally just not interesting enough for a more casual moviegoer. For the true fan, or for someone who likes to watch cinematic firsts (or onlys so far), then this should be interesting.
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