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Sebastiane (1976)

Courtesy of Whaley Malin Productions Ltd

Main image of Sebastiane (1976)
35mm, colour, 86 mins
DirectorsPaul Humfress
 Derek Jarman
Production CompanyDisctac
ProducersJames Whaley
 Howard Malin
ScreenplayDerek Jarman
(uncredited)James Whaley
PhotographyPeter Middleton
MusicBrian Eno

Cast: Leonardo Treviglio (Sebastian); Barney James (Severus); Neil Kennedy (Max); Richard Warwick (Justin); Donald Dunham (Claudius); Ken Hicks (Adrian)

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Rome, AD 303. Emperor Diocletian demotes his favourite, Sebastian, from captain of the palace guard to the rank of common soldier and banishes him to a remote coastal outpost. There he is tortured and humiliated, then killed.

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Set in 303 AD, Sebastiane opens with an exuberant dance for the Emperor Diocletian (choreographed and performed by Lindsay Kemp and troupe). Lithe young men, sporting white body paint, jockstraps and large fake phalli, set the tone of sensual high camp for which Jarman became known. Marvellously colourful tableaux of excess follow until Sebastiane, the Emperor's favoured Captain, steps out of line by begging mercy for a young man's life.

Sebastiane's exile is a remote but spectacular island with breathtaking beaches and rocky outcrops, a perfect backdrop both for his meditations on the divine and the other soldiers' more carnal pursuits. The pace changes. Wide shots of landscape and long takes create a dreamy, languorous mood, heightened by Brian Eno's score. The directors make full use of the highly contrasting Sardinian light and shade and the acting is assured and deft.

In one exquisite moment of homoeroticism, the centurion Severus gazes at Sebastiane washing in the early morning sun. Sebastiane is quickly isolated from the other soldiers by refusing to swordfight and by reciting poetry praising God rather than luxuriating in the sexual beauty of the young men around him. Jarman and Humfress create a moody, subtle palette of blue, white and ochre and keep props to a minimum.

When Severus flogs Sebastiane, the directors avoid sadomasochist cliché, managing instead to bestow the Catholic martyr with a reticent dignity. In another scene, notorious for its explicit homosexual desire, two nude soldiers wrestle and fondle each other in a pool of water while Severus alternately gazes at them and Sebastiane. The beautifully balanced composition and lyricism steer clear of the worst aspects of porn, and the sunlit, slow-motion musculature is mesmerising.

When Sebastiane persists in rejecting Severus, he is staked to the ground and left to fry under the intense Mediterranean sun. Instead of capitulating, Sebastiane uses the punishment to think of the illuminating love of God. As Severus' unrequited lust grows, 'Sebastiane's commitment to Christ increases and the directors play off physical and spiritual desire with consummate grace.

The closing scene, in which Sebastiane is martyred by being pierced with arrows, is touching in its low-key restraint. As each soldier kneels in repentance, the film holds a wide shot of the unforgiving barren landscape. The sparse dialogue is spoken in Latin, with English subtitles, which adds to the remarkably timeless quality of the film.

Cherry Smyth

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Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)