Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio) is a senior officer in the Praetorian Guard, in fact you could say (if you’re one of those people who endlessly recite Monty Python routines) that he wanks as high as any in Wome. Unfortunately the Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley), whom we see enjoying a bukkake dance performance from Lindsay Kemp in the company of an anachronistically clad Jordan (the punk rock one, not the “glamour model”) takes a dim view of Seb’s recent conversion to Christianity and exiles him to a remote desert outpost to serve under the aptly named Commander Severus (Barney James), alongside several resolutely gay squaddies and Max (Neil Kennedy), a homophobic brute with no nose. How (I hear you ask) does Max smell? “Terrible!” is the stock music hall answer but Max probably smells pretty good, spending as much time as he does in the bath house with his butch buddies. Severus develops a serious case of the hots for Sebastiane, who rejects his lustful pagan advances. Using Seb’s pacifism as a pretext, Severus subjects him to ongoing torments and humiliations, which seem to be equally enjoyed on each side of the SM equation. Ultimately Severus orders the guys to string Seb up and dispatch him with arrows, an order with which they eagerly comply… after all, you can’t beat a bit of Bully!
Unfortunately, Jarman chose not to depict the sequel to these sad events in which, according to hagiographical tradition, Sebastiane was miraculously revived by Saint Irene and returned to the court of Diocletian to plead with him to change his Christian-bashing ways. Instead, Diocletian had him cudgelled to death (for good this time) and chucked into Rome’s main sewer (depicted below in the 1612 painting by Lodovico Carracci). We also gather that Sebastian’s cranium turned up, silver coated, in Ebersberg, Germany during the tenth Century, and was used to dispense Communion wine to the faithful on the Saint’s birthday. His various relics are, moreover, reckoned proof against outbreaks of plague and pestilence.
Aside from the reverence in which he is held in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the figure of Sebastian has long been regarded as a gay icon if not, er, pin-up boy. In Richard A. Kaye’s words: “Contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case.” Artists as diverse as Andrea Mantegna and Yukio Mishima have tapped into this myth…
The BFI’s press blurb describes Sebastiane as “a glorious hymn to the very real, living and breathing male body”. Indeed, Jarman and Peter Middleton (responsible for this film’s truly ravishing cinematography) dwell lovingly on the body in question and its workings, to the point where I found myself shouting: “Careful mate, you’ll have somebody’s eye out with that!” at the screen several times (and I wasn’t always talking about the arrows!) As such, Jarman’s uncostumed drama, which grafts bits of Melville’s Billy Budd and Laurens van der Post’s The Seed And The Sower (filmed by Nagisa Oshima as Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence in 1983) onto Christian tradition, enjoyed a brief success de scandale before much of its Roman romp thunder was stolen by Bob Guccione’s Caligula (1979). By having the dialogue spoken in archaic Latin, Jarman was presumably deploying and / or lampooning the convention by which you can get away with more in “Art” films, though I gather that he was originally planning (before distributors put their collective foot down) to have Sebastiane screened without benefit of subtitles. You can take anti commercialism too far, you know…
The male body, however real, living or breathing (they left out “arse-winking”), has never held any erotic fascination for me (frankly, on the cusp of my sixth and seventh decades, even the female body agitates me significantly less than it used to) but I enjoyed this opportunity to see Sebastiane again for three reasons. 1) It’s not Jarman’s excruciating Jubliee (1978), whose “punk rock” pretensions date it more horribly than any of The third Century shenanigans depicted here. 2) House Of Freudstein Hall-Of-Famer David Warbeck once told me that he’d put up much of the film’s finance. 3) Having suffered a Catholic education myself, I’m always glad to see the iconography of repressive religion subverted to the ends of irrepressible Desire.
Extras wise, you get Jazz Calendar (1968), 36 minutes of the Royal Ballet in rehearsal with the scenery and costumes by Jarman that impressed Ken Russell sufficiently to appoint him production designer on The Devils (1971) and set designer on Savage Messiah (1972)… film maker John Scarlett-Davis remembering how he was roped into the proceedings and subsequently mortified to see himself and his boyfriend snogging away on the cover of Time Out… and 62 minutes of an incomplete, black and white, un-subtitled work-in-progress cut, featuring different music from Brian Eno’s ambient noddlings as heard in the released version.
One thing that neither this disc’s bonus materials nor its fully illustrated booklet (featuring liner notes by William Fowler) shed any light upon is the role of long forgotten one-shot co-director (and editor) Paul Humfress (who also co-wrote Leslie Magahey’s BBC 1979 adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken The Painter). It would be interesting to learn how he and Jarman divided the work between them.
The behind-the-scenes Super 8 short The Making of Sebastiane, shot by Jarman and sound assistant Hugh Smith… or at least that part of its 25 minutes not taken up with footage of Sardinian mountain roads shot through the window of a moving car… capture a singular historical moment, in which a repressed minority were starting to flex their muscles, joyously. Who could have known that another pestilence was coming, one against which saintly skulls would afford scant protection?