Today’s cinema adventure: Derek Jarman’s 1976 debut feature, Sebastiane, a fictionalized vision of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, presented less as a meditation on spiritual themes than as a homoerotic fantasy in which the soldier Sebastianus, after falling from favor with the Roman Emperor Diocletian, is exiled to a remote oupost in the wilderness, where his refusal to yield to his commanding officer’s obsessive lust eventually leads to his ritual execution by arrows. A work that is historically significant not only for being the first film produced in authentic Latin (and as such, the first British-made movie to be shown in England with subtitles), but- more importantly- for the prologue featuring an erotic dance by legendary glam-era performance artist Lindsay Kemp and his Troupe, and its inclusion of an early score by electronic music pioneer Brian Eno, Sebastiane was never anybody’s idea of a mainstream film, not even its creator’s. Like most of Jarman’s films, it’s not big on story, but despite its shoestring budget, it is lovingly and beautifully shot, each frame artfully crafted so that the final result resembles a Renaissance painting in motion. The extensive nudity (all male, of course) was explained by Jarman as being because they “couldn’t afford costumes” (sure, Derek, sure… we believe you), and needless to say the film was highly controversial at the time of release; but although many viewers may fixate on what often seems like gratuitous nudity and sexual content, Jarman is not merely concerned with exploiting or even celebrating the male form; he has much to say about the issue of homosexual shame. On the surface, the film would seem to comply with the traditional Catholic assertion that homosexual behavior is a sin to be forsworn, and that Sebastianus’ fate is to be sacrificed to that ideal, destroyed by unrepentant sinners for his refusal to debase himself- a decidedly conflicting message, when one considers the fact that the film is heavily laden with imagery clearly intended to elicit homosexual fantasies. Certainly these themes of religiously-fueled guilt are in play within Sebastiane, and Jarman undoubtedly wrapped some of his own spiritual struggles into his film; but like most art, the true nature of the themes expressed lies beneath the obvious details. Sebastianus’ rejection is of the flesh itself, regardless of sexual orientation: it is his devotion to a life of the spirit that makes him an outcast and a martyr, and it is the jealousy and pride of those who fail to understand him that leads to his death; in the end, sexuality is irrelevant here, and Jarman’s true indictment is against the base and brutal tendencies of stereotypical masculinity, the hypocrisy of judgement and violence against those who do not conform to the status quo, and the arrogance of those who choose to subvert their own spirituality to their egotistical desires and insecurities. In short, the film is more about homophobia than homosexuality, and its abundance of homoerotic imagery is as much to incite as to excite. Of course, that same imagery is sufficient to ensure that the majority of religious bigots will never see this film, so in a way, Sebastiane is a prime example of an artist “preaching to the choir;” and, truthfully, the copious amount of it ultimately displaces Jarman’s higher purpose, so that his inaugural cinematic excursion ends up being more stimulating on a decidedly lower level. My own reaction: it’s a very pretty movie to look at, and probably one of the most erotic ones I have seen (much more so than porn, actually); but at times I couldn’t help being reminded of those soft-core late-night “Skinemax” flicks I would sometimes catch my Dad watching at 3 in the morning… slow motion photography of someone taking a shower, with the frame cropped in just the right place to keep it from being obscene, that sort of thing, except instead of beautiful women, here it was beautiful men. I can’t say I had any complaints, but I was ready for it to be over about 30 minutes before it actually was. It might have helped if the actors (Leonardo Treviglio as Sebastianus, supported by Barney James, Neil Kennedy, and Richard Warwick, among others- none of whom had significant careers afterward) had delivered performances that were as beautiful as their bodies… but I guess we can’t have everything.