Do Be A Martyr

Sebastiane, Derek Jarman's lugubrious and sometimes ludicrous feature film debut (co-directed with Paul Humfress), is succinctly described in an IMDb user review in 2003:
Looking back on the film from more than a quarter of a century, it seems clear that normal criteria concerning story, dialog, and character simply don't apply here. Instead, one must simply view it as a feverish, almost hallucinogenic fantasy drenched with homoerotic, sadomasochistic imagery that is played out against a sun-drenched dreamscape on the Sardinian coast. Think of it as a high-class photo shoot for an avant-garde fashion magazine specializing in loincloths and Roman military paraphernalia. [Emphases mine]
 Indeed, the first mistake a viewer could make in viewing this 1976 film, which regards the last days of the third-century Christian martyr Sebastian, is to expect it to depict its subject reverently (at least not with proper Catholic piety) or realistically (a scene of soldiers playing with a plastic frisbee on the beach pretty much puts the kibosh on historical accuracy, even though the film's dialogue is entirely in subtitled Latin). It would be better to see it as the filmmaker's first move towards more purely poetic films like The Angelic Conversations (1987), which adapts Shakespeare's homoerotic sonnets, and the more overtly political The Last of England (1988). I prefer the latter two films, though Sebastiane has a real (hard) place in my heart, too. Its scenes of British actors playing Roman soldiers in a bathhouse, scraping olive oil off their skin with a strigil, and on the beach, frolicking and lounging amid granite boulders, still radiate plenty of carnal heat. Fairly early in the film, two soldiers move from locking lips to wrestling in slow motion in the blue Mediterranean. Kino's Blu Ray release of the film, yesterday, although imperfect, is a much sharper print of the film than I've seen before, with more vivid color than I remember from my old VHS tape of the film.

"Some people love punishment." So remarks a soldier at a fairly early point in the film. The statement partly explains Sebastian's tightlipped masochism (he's the guy with all the arrows in him). It's also a statement  on the psychosexual component of all types of martyrdom--daring to state the perhaps obvious point about people whose ecstatic passivity in the face of humiliation and torture have usually been ascribed to elevated spirituality or idealism, not libido. Sebastian's presence among the soldiers stirs up strong feelings of desire on multiple fronts, for none more than the centurion Severus, whose sexual advances Sebastian spurns, almost intent on inviting the licking he eventually receives.

Well before 1976 St Sebastian was a gay icon (perhaps the first in history). His nude passivity inspired Botticelli, Wilde, John Singer Sargent, Dali, Tennessee Williams, Yukio Mishima, and other possibly gay and bisexual artists. The "sad young man" as victim was long a stereotype, pre-Stonewall and pre-gay-rights movement, and it continues strong today. Rather than focusing on the martyr's importance in church history, Jarman's film focuses instead on the kink, and it pulls together themes also explored in Herman Melville's Billy Budd (1924, posthumously), Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), and Claire Denis' Beau travail (1999).

Sebastiane's homoerotic sadomasochistic imagery is introduced early. In the opening scene we see the Emperor Diocletian punishing a traitor by ordering a muscular, nearly naked gladiator to kill him with his bare hands (and teeth). There are also repeated scenes, throughout the film, of swordplay, boxing, and wrestling between naked and near-naked men. Then, of course, in the end we see Sebastian strung up naked against a post and, almost silently and with none of the lush, stirring music we associate with such scenes in biblical epics, shot through with arrows--from the bows of nude archers.

When I say "ludicrous" (in my opening paragraph) I mean no disrespect to the film, which I admire greatly (enough to invest in this Blu Ray edition). I mean only to imply that there is a "camp" quality in the film--from Lindsay Kemp's frenzied phallic ballet at the beginning to the arch, sexually repressed exchanges between Severus and Sebastian (which made me laugh out loud when I first saw the movie, decades ago now). Never have balls been so blue in a biopic of a Christian saint. Perhaps the film takes itself too seriously, as well, but I can forgive it that, given its early place in LGBT-themed cinema: it's frequently cited as the first positive depiction of gay male sexuality in a feature-length film. Its drama is linked, I think, to the drama of gay wrestling--the struggle for dominance and mastery, male violence as a product of sexual evolution, the contradictory expression of sexuality through proxy bodily contact and through homosexuality's supposed "repression."


Popular Posts