August 18, 2011

Queer Review: Sebastiane (1976)

Directors: Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman.
Writers: Paul Humfress, Derek Jarman and James Whaley. Latin Translation by Jack Welch.
Cast: Barney James, Neil Kennedy, Leonardo Treviglio, Richard Warwick, Donald Dunham, Daevid Finbar, Ken Hicks, Lindsay Kemp, Steffano Massari, Janusz Romanov, Gerald Incandela, Robert Medley

A tale of the iconic Saint Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio), Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman's film offer one interpretation of what might have happened to the famous martyr.

Sebastiane is set during the time of the Roman Empire, while Christians were still being persecuted. After offending Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley), Sebastiane is exiled to a remote outpost, where boredom has caused most of the members to turn to sex with each other to relieve the tension. Once there, Sebastiane becomes the object of desire for the outposts leader Severus (Barney James) who takes sadistic delight in punishing his soldier.

The Queering
I came to something of an epiphany after watching Sebastiane and Imagine Me and You in the same day. Namely that my two least favorite types of films are ultra bland rom coms and ultra deep experimental art films, that attempt to convey some sort of deep meaning about Life, The Universe, and Everything. The obvious point here being that those genres ostensibly exist at opposite extremes from each other, with my tastes falling in the middle.

In any case, Sebastiane is a frustrating film. There are moments and scenes that work on their own, but on the whole, the film is incomprehensible. There are a couple of very good scenes worth pointing out. One has Severus ordering Sebastiane to strip him, while he watches from a distance two of the other soldiers erotically caressing each other in a shallow pool. The other scene is the climax, which has Sebastiane being killed by arrows while his hands are tied above his head. However, everytime I found myself being drawn into this world, I was thrown out of it by something, such as the anachronistic nails-on-black-board electronic score by Brian Eno.

At least there is a lot that can be analyzed about Sebastiane if one is interested enough to do so. For example, I was reminded several times of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Like the lost boys in Golding's novel, the Roman soldiers have devolved into near barbarism, thanks to their separation from civilization. Sebastiane in this context, represents Piggy, the conscience of the group, who refuses to go along with their descent into madness. There is even a scene where the soldiers hunt and slaughter a pig, although in Sebastiane they never put it's head on a stick. Also, the starkness of the scenes where Severus is torturing Sebastiane strongly reminded me of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

In Sebastiane's defence, it was shot on a minuscule budget for the time period and what Humfress and Jarman accomplished is impressive in that context, even while I admit to being less then enamored of the final product. Sebastiane is also notable for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that this was the first film where all of the dialogue is comprised of Latin and the other is the amount of male nudity. The actors spend so muc of the time naked that according to the IMDB trivia page, Derak Jarman once joked that, "We couldn't afford costumes."

In regards to the nudity, the only thing that keeps Sebastiane from turning into a porno, is the fact that there is never any explicit sex shown, although there are several scenes of guys cuddling and making out while in the buff. At the time Sebastiane was released, the nudity obviously caused a great deal of controversy. Any one who felt that Brokeback Mountain was "ground breaking" for it's depictions of manly men having sex with each other, should check out Sebastiane first and then try and make that claim with a straight face. However, while I appreciated on one level the amount of naked flesh on display, I could never get over the feeling that Sebastiane represented more of a film curiosity, rather then a picture of great significance.

Those individuals who like ultra-serious, art and nothing but the art movies, or have a paticular interest in Saint Sebastiane or the history of queer cinema, will probably find some value here. Everyone else is most likely going to end up as bored as the exiled soldiers.

The Rating


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