Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Sebastiane (1976)

I felt like I should be watching Sebastiane with a Red Triangle in the top left corner of the screen. (Though that Wiki article appears to have blown what I presume is a popular misconception then, as Sebastiane doesn't seem to have been broadcast for that strand) Even in just the opening minutes alone we're treated to a Lindsay Kemp dance routine which ends with him sprawled on the floor having fake ejaculate sprayed all over his face bukkake style from the large fake phalli of several lithe young men, and punk goddess Jordan shows the world her muff at a party that would make Elton John blush. And all that's before we reach the serious homoerotic subject matter.

Jarman's first film is an astoundingly good piece of work and shows how he clearly started as he meant to go on. Don't be fooled into thinking this is a film solely for a homosexual audience, that it is some kind of arthouse (and therefore respectable) gay porn, because Sebastiane is a serious film that works on several levels and should appeal to all kinds of audiences.

The story is based on the life of Saint Sebastian who was martyred during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. Jarman's film draws on the subtext found in the Renaissance depictions of his martyrdom to argue the case that he is a homosexual icon. Naturally, Jarman's film departs from the perceived wisdom of the saint's life and instead depicts Sebastiane's fall from grace as Diocletian's favoured Captain when he pleads mercy for the life of a young catamite; an action which results in him being reduced in rank and exiled to a remote Roman garrison on a breathtaking Mediterranean island with a group of bawdy fellow soldiers. 

With an authentic location in the white, sandy beaches and jutting rocky outcrops of Sardinia, Sebastiane gains further credibility in the cinéma vérité style it employs to record the life of the nine Roman soldiers posted there. For a start the film is spoken entirely in Latin, and this ancient tongue delivering obvious banter between the troop helps to capture a flavour of the life of a working Roman soldier in some distant  outpost of the Empire. Boredom clearly prevails and the needs of red blooded males are a pressing concern. Almost inevitably, these roughhousing soldiers, with no feminine outlet available to them, start to indulge in homosexual acts. Refreshingly, little is actually made of this; Jarman makes it clear that, unlike the so-called modern society, this ancient society saw little unusual and certainly nothing repulsive in a man being attracted to another man, it was simply the accepted norm. One key character, the bullish and unpretentious Max who wears a black pouch upon his nose to hide its syphilitic decay and is played by Neil Kennedy (who would go on to play a former soldier of the same name in Jarman's second film Jubilee) makes it clear that he is heterosexual, but that he will accept a man at a push. The ensuing scenes of homoeroticism are dealt with tenderly and beautifully, in marked contrast to the pantomimic display on offer with Kemp's troupe at the party thrown by Diocletian in the film's opening scene. 

Unsurprisingly Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio, a quiet, nuanced performance) is something of an odd one out in this group. His Christian faith, along with his refusal to train and fight and his disinterest in homoerotic horseplay and practical jokes around the camp, is something that is initially met with amusement by his fellow soldiers. However, when the centurion officer Severus (Barney James, a great and complex turn) starts to become sexually interested in him, only to find his advances repeatedly rejected, the mood in the camp starts to change and Sebastiane is increasingly viewed with suspicion and contempt by all except the kindly natured Justin (Richard Warwick). It isn't long before Sebastiane, immune to the repeated punishments laid out by Severus for spurning his affections, is considered a dangerous cancer within the group and, like all cancers, he must be dealt with swiftly and surely.

Jarman, along with co-writer/director Paul Humfress, delivers a film that is a beautiful, lyrical composition that dreamily luxuriates in the sunkissed beauty on offer - both in the musculature of the male form and the Sardinian scenery - and boasts some truly exceptional slo-mo setpieces and a sublime finale. The cinematography by Peter Middleton is exquisite and atmospheric, whilst Eno's minimalist electronic score is like a mercifully restrained Vangelis.

I mentioned at the start of this review that it felt like I should be watching Sebastiane with the Red Triangle familiar to Channel 4 viewers in the 1980s. However, as a straight man in 2017, I cannot imagine how utterly gratifying it must have been for a gay audience in the '70s and '80s to have watched Sebastiane, with its presentation of same-sex relationships, homosexual impulses and feelings delivered so matter of fact as to be accepted as a complete non-issue. Even now, I think Sebastiane must still rank as special in that regard. And that's Jarman's first film in a nutshell; special.

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