"Speechless" is one of those words that rarely applies to me, especially when it comes to movies. I admit, I always have an opinion. Whether it’s good or bad. I can tell you how I feel about a film the minute it’s done. But try as I may, I sit here absolutely dumbfounded about how I feel about Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane. As soon as the credits began, the first words from my mouth were “What the hell did I just watch”?
Sebastiane begins with one of the most unbelievable and unexpected sequences I have ever seen on film. During a celebration for Roman Emperor Diocletian, we find a dancer with white facial make-up, red lips and tongue. After a few moments, he is joined by six other dancers, whose only article of clothing is a two foot penis and testicles on each of them. They perform with the initial dancer, each simulating acts of penetration. As the performance climaxes (sorry, bad choice of words), they circle around the dancer, who is on his back. As the dance ends, the dancer is covered in copious amounts of goo. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.
After the performance, Emperor Diocletian discovers that one of his men is a Christian and has him killed. Attempting to stop the act, Sebastaine, one of Diocletian’s best soldiers, reveals that he too is a Christian. Instead of killing him, the emperor banishes him to exile. He is sent to a fortress in the middle of nowhere. There are other soldiers there, but they are all Roman. Their lives are simple: They practice battling, yet it is doubtful that they will ever go to war again. Without women, they rely on each other for sexual gratification. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.
Sebastiane isolates himself from the Romans-refusing to participate in training, as well as the flirtations from the men. He also refuses the constant sexual advances from the commander, Severus. With each denial, Sebastiane is punished, either by flogging, being tied down, spread eagle on the hot desert, or attacks by the other soldiers. During these periods, Sebastiane has visions of God, which his description is very similar to Severus. Sebastiane's visions and his Christian beliefs drive his refusal not only of homosexual sex, but of any sexual conduct. But after Severus’s final drunken seduction is refused, Sebastiane is sentenced to death, not by decree of Diocletian, but by Severus himself, for if he cannot have him, no one will.
Sebastiane was filmed in 1976 and is considered a milestone in homo-erotic cinema. It was filmed entirely in Latin (although I doubt the words ‘creep’ and ‘motherfucker’ were a part of Latin vocabulary in 300AD). The only way I can describe this film is artistic. In art school, you are taught that nothing is more beautiful than the human body, and in this film, the human body is on full display. There is very little clothing in Sebastiane. Director Jarman has directed this film like he was painting a picture. The locations where the film was shot (Northern Africa) allow for gorgeous scenery to place the actors in different positions and different angles and levels. The effect is very beautiful. Unfortunately, Jarman hired these men for their looks and not their acting skills, because even in Latin, the line readings are pretty bad.
The one moment in the film that seemed excessive was the opening sequence. When I first saw it, it was literally a WTF moment for me. After watching it a second time, I immediately thought of British director Ken Russell, the man behind Tommy, Gothic, Lair of the White Worm and Woman in Love. His reputation was for male nudity in films and films of controversial topics. Derek Jarman was actually an assistant on several of Russell’s films and many suspect that this scene was a tribute to the director.
It is interesting that Sebastiane is released at this time, when the country is embattled between the Christian right and gay rights. The final shot of Sebastiane in the film is a recreation of numerous portraits of the man, who became a martyr for Christians and was eventually elevated to sainthood. The image of Sebastiane, with his wrists bound and raised above his head and leaning against a tree, is considered an iconic image for gays and gay rights. Sebastiane's appeal to gay men seems obvious. He was young, male, apparently unmarried and martyred by the establishment.
Sebastaine is one of those films that will be studied in film schools for years to come. It is a visual masterpiece. As I said earlier, this is a landmark film in gay culture. There is a lot of nudity, but there is very little sex in this film, if any. Sebastiane is a film you just have to be in the mood for. Yep, it’s that kind of film.
Presented with a 1080p, MPEG-4 video codec and a 1.51:1 aspect ratio, Sebastiane is a pretty rough transfer. Imagery shows a lot of scratches and spots. Obviously, Kino found the best possible print and transferred it. Originally filmed in 16mm, Kino did a great job with what they had. The image is soft throughout the entire film. Some close-ups, such as the bugs having sex or the soldier shaving in the public baths, do offer some decent sharpness of details, but that is pretty much it. Skin tones are accurate, especially for men stuck out in the desert. Black levels are fair. Image delineation is not good. Even so, this is probably the best this movie has ever looked.
The linear PCM 2.0 audio transfer is acceptable for this film. I wasn’t expecting very much, and I was right. Dialogue is clear, and I don’t know very many people who speak Latin to tell me if they are hearing things accurately. There is nothing audible that will challenge the speakers. The electronic score by Brian Eno is minimalistic and is non-intrusive. Most times, I didn’t realize it was there.
There are no extras included on this disc.
Sebastiane is one of those films that you need to watch for its artistic merits more than anything else. It provides breathtaking imagery in combination with the human body. The story itself is interesting. Unfortunately, the acting is pretty bad. I suspect there will be two types of people watching this movie: Those who will study the film and those who will study the well-chiseled bodies. Yep, it’s that kind of film.