Viewers seem to have a love/hate relationship with Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane – loved for being “ground-breaking” and “masterful,” hated for being “low budget soft core porn.” And while it definitely wasn’t made on the budget of a blockbuster, part of the questionable quality may simply come from the 1976 aesthetics of independent film. The other part, I’m thinking, comes from the low expectations and classifications of films that offer a lot of flesh.
I’m not as familiar with Jarman’s films as I should be, having come across him because of my interest in Tilda Swinton’s work. But I wanted to see Sebastiane solely because of the subject.
I know the story of Saint Sebastiane – I’ll stick with that spelling – through the many works of art recreating his martyrdom. There have been sculptures and stories… My fellow writer and wurbling buddy Anna Reith wrote a beautiful story about Sebastiane called Chiaroscuro. Sebastiane was painted by El Greco, Rubens, de La Tour, Carracci, Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, Dali… you name it, they all loved him as a subject. One artist, Andrea Mantegna, painted Sebastiane three times.
Mantegna’s love for Sebastiane is said to have come about because of the saint’s purported ability to offer protection from the plague, which Mantegna managed to survive and so was duly grateful. But it’s the method of Sebastiane’s suffering that is the big fascination. Body riddled with arrows, he remained beatific and beautiful, even sensual.
He was one of the unlucky Christians persecuted by the Romans, but what made Sebastiane special was that he survived his trial by arrows. He was a sneaky undercover Christian, converting followers when he was supposed to be cleaning house. As a captain of the Praetorian Guard, this was a major betrayal. Diocletian was pissed off, and had him tied to a post and executed by a slew of arrows – or at least that was the plan. Sebastiane recovered and resumed his conversions, and apparently he was feeling rather invincible because he got cheeky with Diocletian by taunting him from a street corner. The emperor wasn’t having it. He said enough was enough, clubbed Sebastiane to death and tossed him into a privy. The story goes that he later appeared to some ladies, not to offer heavenly inspiration, but to ask if they might fish him out of the sewage and bury him properly. But despite that rather inelegant ending, he became the twice martyred saint of soldiers and protector from the plague, which came in handy during the medieval period. He is always portrayed as beautiful, always young, and always has a glow of serenity about him.
So it’s easy to see where the fascination comes from, and why the iconic portrayals are hugely influential. Then this little movie comes along and has its way with Sebastiane – it was bound to rouse admiration and ire. I admit I wasn’t quite prepared for Jarman’s portrayal. Right out of the gate we get a lurid Dance Of The Phalli, culminating in a cream off. And while watching this opening scene, one does have to wonder how this applies to Saint Sebastiane, and gamely theorize that perhaps in some avant guarde way the phalluses are arrows and the, uh, stuff that shoots out of them represents strikes to the body. But the opening seems quite disconnected from the rest of the movie. It gets better from there, or shall I say less anachronistic and more focused and historically faithful, if drawn with a free hand. It may have been made on a tight budget, but care was taken. I liked the authenticity of the props, the setting, the Latin dialogue, and the nudity is not gratuitous. Not in my opinion, not for the setting, as Roman soldiers were known to train starkers (or at least the Greeks did and that’s close enough), and frolic in the sea and rub their bodies down in the baths after their workouts. The camera lingers on their wet bodies, rippling muscles and perky arses, lovingly stroking all that divine golden flesh on our behalf, thank you very much. Perhaps this is disturbing to some in such close proximity to the story of a saint?
Oh, pish-tosh. Everyone’s had a go at Sebastiane, why shouldn’t Jarman have his say, too? He’s just as qualified to give us his rendition, and he portrays the saint faithfully and well. The most striking images are given to us at the end, as Sebastiane suffers his martyrdom with as much radiant tranquility as in any other artistic rendering. Are the naked bodies, the kisses and wrestling, necessary? In Jarmal’s portrayal, yes, they are, because he gets to decide how he will depict the story. I don’t think his depiction is at all far off, given Sebastiane’s consistently portrayed artful eroticism.
This is why I liked this movie, because this is what I’ve been yammering on and on about: sensuality and sex do not undermine storytelling, can in fact faithfully aid in it. Whether it’s the story of a saint or sinner, whether it’s identified as lit-rah-chah or a cheap and cheerful quickie, sex is an ever present and influential facet of all our characters. In philosophy, in religion, sex is frequently a front and center aspect of the concepts, the earthly pleasures that often throw a wrench in the progress toward enlightenment. That’s because it’s a powerful thing. Discussions and depictions of sensuality are incredibly enthralling, even saintly sensuality. Especially saintly sensuality. Symbolically, the sensual nature of rapture through pleasure or suffering looks the same, and maybe that’s frightening, too. Taboos are all about fear, and the refusal to acknowledge how close we are to losing ourselves every second of every day. We don’t want to look, and that’s exactly why we should.
I’m grateful to Jarman for his Sebastiane, for remaining true to the beauty of the saint’s yielding to the fervency of his flesh, and finding that, instead of compromising his devotion, it strengthens and restores his conviction.