August 13, 1976 ((Locarno Film Festival) — 85 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Genre
Jarman’s 1st feature, powerful, visionary film about the historical St. Sebastian.
In Sebastiane (1976), British writers/directors Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress created a remarkably authentic historical film, and a landmark of gay cinema, about the martyred fourth century Roman soldier, who was later both canonized as Saint Sebastian and revered as an enduring gay icon. The film strikingly balances a cinéma vérité depiction of the everyday life of common soldiers, in a remote desert outpost of the Roman Empire, and a visionary exploration of one man’s defiant growth in faith, even as it subtly questions the nature of that experience. Sebastiane is one of 50 Outstanding GLBT Films and one of 50 Great Films by GLBT Directors, and it’s on my list of the 10 Best Films about Religion.
This was Jarman’s first full-length work as a filmmaker, and it remains the only feature from Humfress, who was then a director at the BBC. The filmmakers take some liberties with the accounts of Saint Sebastian. For instance, there is no record of him being exiled, no sadistically lovelorn Captain Severus, and incredibly he was supposed not to have died from the arrows with which he was famously shot – which is how Emperor Diocletian ordered him killed, and how the film ends – but rather from a second execution when he was clubbed to death and dumped in a Roman sewer in 288 A.D. (a few years earlier than the date given in the film). Of course, strict historical fidelity is impossible, since the earliest accounts of his life were written centuries after the fact.
The film Sebastiane works brilliantly on many levels – cinematic, psychological, spiritual, aesthetic, even political – but what may strike you first is the vividness of the ancient world it depicts, captured with an authenticity matched by few films. Despite a brief, over-the-top prologue at the glitteringly decadent court of Diocletian (he shuns his “favorite,” Sebastian, Captain of the Palace Guard, for defending a Christian accused of arson – similar to canonical accounts), and its subtle compositional use of famous Renaissance paintings of St. Sebastian (by Mantegna, Reni, and others), the film feels like lived experience.
Although it was shot with a microscopic budget (£25,000, then US $45,000 – in 1976 a typical Hollywood movie cost about $12 million) on location in Sardinia, every well-worn costume and dusty prop seems genuinely of its time. This is in striking contrast to the long tradition of big-budget “sword and sandal” epics – which began in the Silent Era, peaked in the 1950s with Ben-Hur, and continues today in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator – which, despite their craftsmanship, always look manufactured and a bit phony. And, as we will look at below, the homoerotic coyness of so many of those films – well illustrated by the “oysters and snails” scene in Kubrick’s Spartacus, in which Laurence Olivier comes on to his slave, Tony Curtis, with the argument that ‘all’s tasty in love’ – is made completely open and natural in Sebastiane.
The more relevant cinematic inspirations (below we will look at the film’s roots in Renaissance painting) are then-recent pictures by Pasolini and Fellini. Sebastiane’s opening shot of dancer Lindsay Kemp’s savagely painted face – with his huge tongue wriggling at us – recalls the grotesque “producer” in the play scene at the beginning of the extraordinary Fellini Satyricon. But Jarman and Humfress, like Fellini, all owe a considerable debt to the great filmmaker/author Pier Paolo Pasolini, who brought the vérité techniques of Italian Neorealist cinema to depictions of the ancient world in his riveting film about Jesus, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and his versions of Greek myth, Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969). In particular, Sebastiane’s motley band of exiled Roman soldiers seems like a fleshed out development of the crew of Argonauts in Medea, who were brought to life by Pasolini’s subtle documentary-like approach.
From stills, you might think that Sebastiane’s cast was chosen for their sculpted bodies. But each of these actors, even those in supporting roles, fully inhabits their characters and brings them to life. Leonardo Treviglio (seen most recently in Julie Taymor’s 1999 film, Titus) gives an intensely restrained, brilliantly nuanced performance in the title role. Neil Kennedy as Max (a year later he played another memorable character with that same name in Jarman’s Jubilee) brings a twisted comic energy to his role as the troublemaker extraordinaire. And Barney James, whose only other film role was as the policeman in Jubilee, creates a genuinely complex antagonist in his Captain Severus, smitten with Sebastian and torn between lust, duty, and love.
These nine exiled soldiers speak the earthy “dog Latin” of that time with total believability (there are English subtitles; classics scholar Jack Welch translated Jarman and Humfress’s original script). Rather than a gimmick, this ancient “street talk” helps capture the texture of their rough daily life in some godforsaken outpost of the Empire. We see just the kind of loose camaraderie you would expect under the circumstances – merciless ribbing of each other, some literally painful practical jokes, constant questioning of each other’s manhood (although somewhat different from today, since this was historically a society where gay and bisexual people were part of the accepted norm), flaring tempers; yet all is forgiven by the next day. This constant roughhousing gives the film not only verisimilitude, but energy and unpretentiousness.
That latter quality is especially important, because Jarman and Humfress deal with some dauntingly complex themes, as important now as seventeen hundred years ago, including the meaning of spirituality, the place of sexuality in life, and the contradictory nature of reality. The film’s wild streak of humor, and its sometimes breathtaking visual design, help keep this profoundly serious work from overdosing on what some people call “heaviosity.”
The thematic core, as you might expect in a film about a man on the road to sainthood, is spirituality. But while the vision of faith is powerful and deeply moving, it also has many layers, some of which are provocatively ambiguous.
For some viewers, a central question will be: Is Sebastian a true Christian or is he a syncretist grafting his personal version of the new religion on to much older roots? The film offers different possible answers, not as a dodge, but because Jarman and Humfress realize how multi-faceted religious experience is, growing out of social, personal, and spiritual contexts. The film shows us Sebastian becoming ever more removed from his fellow soldiers, an outsider among outsiders, as he feels himself drawn closer to his deity. While Sebastian is being tortured (the first time) for his intransigence – stripped and staked to the ground (see the frame above) – he talks with the sweet-natured Justin (Richard Warwick, who was Antonio in Jarman’s The Tempest), who is in love with him (perhaps more for his beauty than his faith). At the climax of this scene, Sebastian cries out, referring to the personification of his growing spirituality, “I love him. He is beautiful. More beautiful than Adonis.” The subtext – at once spiritual, sadomasochistic, homoerotic, and heartbreakingly tender – is made apparent when Sebastian, oblivious to Justin’s feelings, says, “He takes me in his arm and caresses my bleeding body.” When Justin shields Sebastian from the sun, he jerks his head away; for Sebastian, only God can give him solace.
The full nature of Sebastian’s ecstatic faith is subtly questioned. In his delirium, he has mistaken the character referred to in the credits as the Leopard Boy, presumably a member of a local tribe, for a manifestation of a god or God. Since we see the Leopard Boy before Sebastian does – soon after the latter’s arrival in this remote outpost – it is assumed that he is a real character and neither a figment of Sebastian’s imagination nor a literalized manifestation of deity. So, does this self-delusion lessen the importance of Sebastian’s growing faith?
One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is that it can be seen as either spiritual or secular; perhaps its deep strain of humanism is the common link. Sebastiane is spiritual in that we feel the deep importance of faith to Sebastian, more so than in most self-styled religious movies. But this film also offers not only a rational, or secular if you will, reason for that – Sebastian’s world is harsh (betrayed by his beloved Diocletian) and his life is hard (he lives in a literal and metaphorical wasteland); it also shows Sebastian’s confusion (misinterpreting the Leopard Boy as a deity, not to mention one which may be simultaneously, to him, Greco-Roman and/or Christian). Whether or not Sebastian’s faith is based on layers of confusion, we can fully understand why it is so essential, and nourishing, to him under the circumstances of his life.
On the other hand, if Sebastiane is seen as a straightforwardly spiritual film – and some people consider it so – then there are few other pictures which depict, in such profoundly real and moving terms, the slow but unshakeable process of one person embracing a faith fully, to the extent that he would sacrifice his life for its principles. When Sebastian, a former commander to the emperor, early on refuses to engage in mock combat because, as he says in all sincerity, “Christians don’t fight,” we know that he is paving the way for his own destruction, which the film depicts step by inexorable step.
In addition to the depth of its spiritual probings, Sebastiane can be appreciated aesthetically. It is an extremely well-made film – dramatically, visually, and musically – despite its constricted budget. The screenplay is deftly structured, with each scene finding the right length to delineate its characters and expose the necessary information. This film knows how to balance its oppositions, both dramatic (from soldierly raunch to spiritual awakening) and visual, finding beauty in the mysterious depths of water (few films have such a wealth of seductive water images) and the serenity of the fatal desert, not to mention its strikingly handsome, but never “model pretty,” cast. As we will see below, the filmmakers also were remarkably successful in integrating motifs from Renaissance art (where for centuries Saint Sebastian was one of the two or three most popular subjects) into the overall realism of the visual design.
The cinematography by Peter Middleton (who also shot Jarman’s next two films) is exceptional, especially considering that these powerful images were originally shot in 16mm (before being blown up to 35mm for theatrical release). The editing by co-writer/director Paul Humfress is crisp. And Brian Eno’s superb minimalist score (his first work for film) provides both haunting atmosphere and, in its electronic modernness, just a bit of distance from the realism of the ancient setting.
There is also great beauty in the English of Jarman and Humfress’ subtitles (alas, I’m not fluent in dog Latin). In radiant contrast to the soldiers’ tart slang is Sebastian’s mystically beautiful hymns of praise to his deity and its world. I was especially moved by his singling out, as an example of God’s handiwork, “That beauty that made all colors different…. The heavens and earth are united in gold.” (see the two frames above) At times Sebastiane achieves genuine cinematic poetry, uniting word, image, and sound, which adds not only another rich texture to a many-layered film, but still more depth to Sebastian’s evolving character.
While looking at language, let’s take a brief look at the name behind the title. Sebastianus was what the man would have been called in ancient Rome, but the subtitles modernize it as Sebastian. The form of the name in the title, Sebastiane, is in the Latin vocative case – which indicates the person being spoken to – and translates as O Sebastian. In other words, the Latin grammatical form of the title indicates that the filmmakers, and we, are directly addressing the character, and all that that implies: seeing the man as if he and his world were with us now.
But this film is no mere exercise in historical recreation. It is a work of flesh and blood, which in its depiction of the collision course of Sebastian’s religious fervor and Severus’s uncontrollable desire cuts through the disastrously tangled knot of desire and power. For millennia that theme has been a staple of both art (such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy in 458 B.C., Shakespeare’s 1606 play Antony and Cleopatra) and countless works of popular culture, but of a distinctly heterosexual strain. Here, the theme is explored from the dual perspective of spirituality, as seen above, and gay life. And that brings us to another reason why Sebastiane is such an extraordinary film.
Paradoxically, much of the film’s power as a specifically gay-themed work comes from the fact that the homoeroticism is not only unselfconscious but in the background. It is just another aspect of these men’s lives, and one which their larger society takes for granted. They reveal, through their jibes, that a man may just as likely be attracted to a woman as to another man. This is a place where guys can taunt each other about their interest in both Vestal Virgins and popular female whores (we catch a glimpse of the infamous Mammea Morgana, whom the guys love to joke about – and who resembles the Amyl Nitrate character in Jarman’s next film, Jubilee – in the prologue at Diocletian’s palace) and, equally, about their interest in members of the same sex. This is still one of the only films to present a world which is both credible and completely accepting of same-sex relationships; where sexual orientation is a non-issue. That vision must have been extraordinarily gratifying to gay audiences a mere quarter of a century ago (which also explains Sebastiane’s great success at the box office, which surprised many people), at a time when movies and books offered only the most hopeless depiction of trapped, doomed homosexual existence (which, on one level, the Sebastian/Severus plot strand reflects).
But Sebastiane also contains some of the most genuinely tender and loving moments of any gay-themed film up to that time, especially in the budding relationship of the minor characters Adrian (whom the other men tease about being a virgin) and Anthony. Their scene together in the water, shot in slow motion, may look like some soft-core fantasy (gay or straight) – with the camera lingering over (almost) every inch of their sculpted bodies – but the emotional connection between them seems every bit as real as their physical desire (which we do not see consummated). Earlier in the film there was a comparably overt scene, consisting of Sebastian pouring water over his nude body and rubbing himself clean. What makes these scenes of central importance is that they highlight one of the film’s most interesting layers. They are both clearly from the point of view of Severus, the repressed but passionate captain of these outcast soldiers. In other words, these sensual, beautiful and moving images are all from the antagonist’s point of view.
But then, Severus is much more than a traditional villain. In a comparable story of this type he would be the closeted ‘homosexual heavy,’ like the diabolical Claggart in Melville’s 1891 final novella, Billy Budd, or the officer in Carson McCullers’ 1941 novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye. Severus is more complex than that, both psychologically and in his key role in the narrative structure. He has such resonance because of the depth of Jarman and Humfress’s filmmaking, as well as Barney James’s engrossing performance.
Severus seems to be equally divided between raw lust and genuine love for Sebastian. But Sebastian is no simple martyr in this film. He is portrayed simultaneously as a young man with the beauty of a Greek god but with the fierce piety of a saint-in-training, yet one who is not adverse to teasingly close physical contact with his friend Justin. And it is all too clear how he contributes to Severus’s monumental frustration, which ultimately leads to the visceral climax. Before that, and Severus’s final seduction attempt, we have an intimate moment with him. This scene, with Severus drunk, alone in his narrow quarters and going mad with desire for Sebastian, is so powerful in part because our voyeuristic interest in his “private life” is being fulfilled. Even more, Jarman and Humfress provide a fascinating, subtle visual gloss on the action and emotion. They shoot the scene from overhead – perhaps from the ironic perspective of, say, a low-flying god – which makes the claustrophobia of Severus’s space, and life, all the more vivid.
You can see Severus’s duality – which stands at the center of a film filled with dualities yoked together – in the climactic note-quite rape scene with Sebastian (see the frames to the right). Note that Sebastian is dark, even a bit menacing, with the underlighting and the “devilish” beard; while Severus – hair ringed with golden light – looks like a Renaissance image of a Greek god, Apollo or Adonis, the very deities which not-quite-fully-Christian Sebastian longed for. The complex and contradictory role of Severus becomes even more intriguing when you realize that he implicates us viewers in his voyeuristic and disturbing, yet undeniably beautiful, gazing at radiant young men (if this were a “heterosexually-oriented” film, the gender of the objects of desire would change, but not the emotional warp). This character forces us to sort through our own responses, whatever they might be and whatever our sexual orientation, even as we realize that what we are seeing is the radical ambiguity of his point of view.
The film adds still another layer of narrative complexity by forcing us to ask, Who is telling this story? At the end of the brief prologue at Diocletian’s court, the wily, and increasingly mad, Max turns to the camera – his nose hidden by a black pouch to cover its syphilitic decay – and addresses us directly. True, he provides additional details about the action – which were not covered in the historical background text at the very beginning – but he never returns to his role as narrator. Is Max a point-of-view red herring? It would seem so, because the style, tone, and pacing of the film all change substantially once we reach the desert outpost, just a few minutes into the picture. It then adopts a much more direct narrative stance (despite the lyrical moments when Sebastian is evolving his faith) than you could expect from the twisted perspective of Max. And yet, it is hard to forget his brief appearance, and it does color, however slightly, our perceptions of the rest of the film.
Perhaps an even more subtle influence on the film’s tone is its rich connections to art, as well as gay, history. Jarman, of course, was already both an acclaimed painter and impassioned gay rights advocate before becoming a filmmaker. Saint Sebastian was an inspired subject for him to explore, as you can immediately see by comparing two of the most influential paintings on the subject with the visceral frames from Sebastiane (see the table to the left; all paintings and frames are in the same proportions/aspect ratios as the originals). Historically, Saint Sebastian with his muscular physique (tied to a pillar, drilled with arrows – the embodiment of intense but safely-bound desire) and soulful eyes, became not only one of the most frequently-painted subjects in Renaissance art but an enduring, albeit sadomasochistic, gay icon.
His martyrdom was famously depicted by such Renaissance and Baroque artists – several of whom were gay (see my list of LGBTQ artists) – as Bernini, Tintoretto, Botticelli, Bazzi (“Il Sodoma”), Mantegna (his 1480 version – the best-known of his many paintings of Saint Sebastian – is in the lower left), Reni (his 1615 version is in the upper left), Giorgione, Perugino, and El Greco, as well as the nineteenth century French painters Redon and Moreau (who reflected their “Decadent” era’s interest in androgynous male beauty), among many others, including several modern artists. In literature, here is a list of just the best-known gay and bisexual authors who have written about Saint Sebastian: Pater, Wilde, Cocteau, Eliot, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Auden, and Mishima, who in his autobiographical 1949 novel Confessions of a Mask, the narrator dates his gay awakening to the discovery of Reni’s painting of St. Sebastian. (For a more comprehensive overview of Saint Sebastian’s evolving role in gay art and literature, read this essay.) Saint Sebastian has had a recent revival in this time of AIDS, perhaps because of his dual role as icon of tortured male beauty and as the patron saint of – even more than soldiers, athletes, and archers (!) – sufferers of the plague.
Jarman and Humfress’s visionary film makes a fascinating, and perhaps even the most aesthetically and emotionally complex, addition to the long tradition of works about Saint Sebastian. For some, its matter-of-fact depiction of a world, although ancient, free of homophobia may also be compelling.
People familiar with Jarman’s final testament on film, Blue (1993) – made when he was blind and near death from AIDS, it presents an unchanging field of color accompanied by a montage of voices, sounds and music – may find that the blank blue screens which begin and end Sebastiane, to the accompaniment of Brian Eno’s elegiac music, have a special poignance.
- Directed and written by Jarman & Paul Humfress
- Latin translation by Jack Welch
- Produced by James Whaley and Howard Malin
- Cinematography by Peter Middleton
- Illustrations by Christopher Hobbs
- Sound Recordist John Hayes
- Edited by Paul Humfress
- Music by Brian Eno
- Dance (in the Prologue) choreographed and performed by Lindsay Kemp and Troupe (with music by Andrew Wilson)
- Leonardo Treviglio as Sebastian
- Barney James as Severus
- Neil Kennedy as Maximus (“Max”)
- Richard Warwick as Justin
- Donald Dunham as Claudius
- Ken Hicks as Adrian
- Janusz Romanov as Anthony
- Steffano Massari as Marius
- Daevid Finbar as Julian
- Gerald Incandela as the Leopard Boy
- Robert Medley as Emperor Diocletian
There are currently several Jarman video releases, to own (on DVD and Blu-ray), rent, stream, or borrow from your library, as well as Jarman books. NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate Jarman link for a purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.
Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
Kino Video‘s release of Sebastiane has very good image quality, especially considering that the film was originally shot in 16mm before it was blown up to 35mm for theatrical release. The sound is also very good, with the original monophonic soundtrack coming through cleanly in Dolby Digital mono. The only supplemental features are an excellent brief biography of Jarman plus his filmography, listing all of the features and selected shorts (here are all of his short films); the insert card, with the chapter stops, also contains critic Alexander Walker’s interesting review from the time of the film’s premiere. Kino is to be thanked for their first-rate DVD releases of this film and The Tempest (which also includes three of Jarman’s rare early short films), but I hope in a future Jarman release they will offer his 10-minute short “Sebastiane Wrap” (1975), about the cast party for this film.
- Presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- Audio remastered in Dolby Digital Mono
- Biography and filmography for Jarman
- Film divided into 12 chapters for easy access
- Insert card with chapter listings and the review from the October 28, 1976 London Evening Standard
- $29.95 suggested retail
Reviewed June 29, 2003 / Revised October 18, 2020