Derek Jarman and Paul Humphress’s Sebastiane has this reputation of being a gay film during a certain time. Most viewers expect to see eroticism, which it displays for the most part. But there are certain scenes here where it realistically shows a male body’s reaction to pain. Feet dangle next to a wall of a desert encampment. Pigs oink nearby, obviously reinforcing the man’s demeaning and unsanitary situation. Those feet belong to the titular character (Leonardo Treviglio), suffering under the hands and stares of Severus (Barney James). Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley) sent Sebastiane there to hopefully turn him into a soldier. But his pacifist Christian stance is stopping him from being a fighter. He endures one torture session after another, resilient against someone with layered intentions. Interestingly enough, those torture scenes, nor the youthful frolicking in between, don’t feel exploitative for the most part.
This film experiments with its male on male gaze. It closes up and moves back deliberately to either frustrate the male gaze and to give it some respectability. It captures these sculpted bodies in movement, these men moving faster than viewers can look at them at times. That movement obviously symbolizes the wild energy that comes with boredom. These bodies are like the land they’re on. They feel the scorching sun that seems like it’s also melting the film that’s capturing them. A scene where the exiles capture and kill a pig encapsulate those contraction of activity and boredom. This reflect an empire in decline. When men hunt farm animals instead of valiantly fighting for the glory of their empire. Humfress and Jarman make big statements even in small scenes. And some of those scenes feel meta-climactic.
These characters move instead of talk, which is sometimes for the best. This is because of the decision for them to speak in Latin. And these first time actors deliver these lines in a stilted manner. That’s a big yet forgivable point against Sebastiane, which still has a lot of assets. It associates, obviously, Christianity and homosexuality, and it makes Sebastiane both. The film’s first viewers probably don’t associate one identity with another, and that’s probably truer today than it was then.
And again, there’s a lot of subtle differences among how scenes portray these characters and their bodies. Later into the film, they’re like shadows next to clear blue waters. Or sketched out figures as day turns into night. The decision to give these characters less clothing than usual also has purposes outside of satisfyingly the gay male gaze. These men are free and wild, turning each other on and eventually, turn against each other.
Stream Sebastiane on OVID.