Stripped of his rank as head of the palace guard for interfering and disobeying with the emperor's command, Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) is punished to serve as a lowly foot soldier in some ramshackle, ragtag troop that wastes each day away beneath the scorching heat of the desert sun. The two settings couldn't be any more drastic or extreme. As the favorite soldier of Roman emperor Diocletian, Sebastian lived amongst an endless bacchanalian feast of carnal pleasures and granted all sorts of guiltless debauchery, as we see in the opening moments of Derek Jarman's feature-length debut 'Sabastiane.' But a single act of compassion and kindness costs him everything and is instead continuously punished for it until the day he dies.
This is the story of Saint Sebastian, one of the early venerated martyrs in Christian history best known from Renaissance art of a young man tied to a tree and shot with arrows for his faith. During Diocletian's reign, he was persecuted and ultimately sentenced to death at a time when it was still illegal to be openly Christian. That last bit is paramount and worth reflecting on while watching 'Sebastiane,' which Jarman co-directed and co-wrote with Paul Humfress. The titular character, meekly portrayed by Treviglio with the kind of unshakable solemnness and ringing halo befitting the most devoutly saint, suffers great physical punishment at the hands of his superior Severus (Barney James) and endures a variety of hateful speech and intolerance from fellow soldier Maximus (Neil Kennedy).
Only, the filmmakers of 'Sebastiane' are not exactly reintroducing the figure into contemporary culture, so much as prompting discussion on heteronormativity and the social conditions of bigotry which lead to the so-called saint's death. Sebastian is a tragic hero of a narrow-minded society, and Jarman reimagines him to a certain degree as a champion for refusing outside pressures and never giving in to the cruelty. There is also a sense that the directors are celebrating the obvious homoerotic aspects of the saint's depictions in Renaissance art — somewhat provocative and revealing poses with a chlamys just barely covering the nether region while a young effeminate face seems suggestive of both pain and pleasure. They are beautiful paintings on their own to be sure, particularly those of Guido Reni, but they are also indicative of so much more.
And the duo directors not only allude to readings of those paintings but also hint at other religious artworks of the period, such as Michelangelo's Pietà. They litter the screen with artfully-designed scenes which can be construed as profane and offensive, whether it's two men becoming intimate or the extensive amount of male nudity in iconic poses. The same imagery meant to affirm one's faith is evinced as a subversive act: one person's icon is another's iconoclast. Essentially, Jarman turns the tables on the intolerant views of modern Christianity as if to remind the faithful that there was once a time when their religion was also prohibited. The freedom to openly practice its supposed philosophy of tolerance, fraternal love, social justice and forgiveness was in a long ago epoch forbidden, understood as abnormal and blasphemous.
An important underground film for Queer Studies, especially as a significant influence to "New Queer Cinema," Derek Jarman's 'Sebastiane' is one of the earliest, if not one of the first, motion pictures with positive depictions of homosexuality. The camera doesn't shy away from the male figure in all its nude glory, whether naked men rough house or make dirty sexual jokes, and it isn't afraid of pulling audiences in for a closer look, as in one slow-motion scene of Sebastian showering. One couple, in particular, is even portrayed in a heated passionate embrace with the equal romantic lens more commonly afforded to heterosexual couples. (If such things offend, then you've been warned.) The film doesn't show the same artful polish as his later projects, but it's an important piece that foreshadowed great things to come from Derek Jarman and for gay cinema in general.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Sebastiane' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a blue, eco-lite case, the Region A locked, BD25 disc goes straight to the main menu with static photo of the cover art and music playing in the background.
Per usual, a Jarman production originally shot on 16mm film doesn't quite make the best impression on Blu-ray. But with consideration to the source and its condition, it can be said this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is a marked improvement over previous editions. The 1.51:1 image is awash in natural grain that's consistent and unobtrusive, providing a welcomed film-like quality. Colors are attractive and accurately rendered, with primaries looking particularly bold. Contrast and brightness are very well-balanced with clean whites and strong blacks. Minor details can be lost in the darkest portions, but overall, definition and clarity are better than could be expected without the benefit of full restoration.
This Blu-ray edition of 'Sebastiane' also arrives with a good uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack that does the film justice, though there is still room for some minor improvement. The most apparent snag is a limited dynamic range with very little movement between the mids and highs. This is somewhat of a shame because Brian Eno's original score is so hauntingly absorbing. There's still a healthy, appropriate dose of low bass, giving the design a bit of depth. But for the most part, Eno's music does nicely at generating a decently wide soundstage. Dialogue is clear and intelligible in the center where much of the overall lossless mix seems confined to, yet it gets the job done, all things considered.
Making his feature-length along with Paul Humfress, Derek Jarman co-wrote and co-directed this influential and important piece of gay cinema. 'Sebastiane' is a reimagining of the life and death of the revered martyr Saint Sabastian, told through iconic imagery that essentially celebrates homoerotic depictions of the figure while also showing positive portrayals of homosexuality. The Blu-ray arrives with an improved audio and video presentation, but it won't the sort to impress first-time lookie-loos. In the end, Jarman fans will be satisfied with this bare-bones edition.