In the year 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley) has been much troubled by usurpers and rabble rousers, and a spate of destructive fires around the capital. Tonight he decides to lose himself in one of his orgies, a wild party with dancing boys who perform a sexually explicit show that goes down very well. But when he picks out one of the partygoers as a possible insurrectionist, and has him brutally executed at the dinner table, his favourite lieutenant Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) protests, drawing the Emperor's ire. As a result, Sebastian is banished to an unimportant outpost of the Empire...
Sebastiane was a controversial film on its initial release, drawing ire too, this time from the moral guardians (often self-appointed) who criticised its openly gay approach and subject matter, especially as it contained copious male nudity which even for the nineteen-seventies was a bit much compared to elsewhere. But this was the age of the permissive society, and that had to apply to the homosexuals as well as the heterosexuals whether some of those heteros liked it or not, so directors Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman were going to push back some boundaries no matter what the less enlightened and more uptight members of society believed and tried to force on others.
It is true that this work was consciously targeting a very specific audience, who may have numbered as little as two: its directors, yet for gay men in this decade it became a must-see, something unapologetically appealing to them even if not all were impressed with what they saw by the time they got around to it. As a historical story, the makers had decided to excuse the bunch of blokes wandering around starkers by playing up that angle, to the extent that the actors essayed their roles completely speaking in Latin, a factor at once incredibly pretentious and a bit of a joke, but one the filmmakers were assuredly in on and cheerfully (cheekily) indulging.
There are not many films set in Ancient times that unfold in a language of the past, but perhaps crucially one that did was Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and that too took a fetishistic style to its imagery of the male body in torture to transcend the corporeal. Both films had more in common than either groups of their fans would care to admit, and the suffering of Jesus Christ was undoubtedly much the same in its perverse sexualisation of the ecstasy of pain as what happened to poor old Sebastian here. This was, after all, a religious story as the title character is criticised and eventually tortured for his Christian beliefs, leading the other Romans to inflict all sorts of agonies on him for their dubious pleasure, and possibly his into the bargain, raising all sorts of questions about victimiser and victim.
According to this, going through the pains of persecution, for your sexuality or your spiritual beliefs, was akin to attaining a wonderful understanding of what was to be human, and the persecutors would be little better than dumb animals grunting their way through a society whose often unwritten rules they barely grasped the significance of. Only those who experienced what was to be an outcast would appreciate the full potential of life, seemed to be the conclusion. Mind you, that was all very well, but you would still be dead at the end of it, and though Sebastian and indeed Christ meet their reward in heaven, was that really enough to excuse the endurance they had had to pass through to achieve it? In this, that was akin to a sexual enlightenment - the slow motion frolicking in the water did not go unnoticed - though in some parts this resembled a gay Beach Party movie. It was an odd thing, undoubtedly sincere, not without humour, but curiously alienating for most. Music by Brian Eno.
[The BFI have released Sebastiane on Blu-ray, fully restored. The special features to expect:
Jazz calendar (1968, 36 mins): footage of the Royal Ballet in rehearsal with scenery and costumes by Derek Jarman
Sebastiane: A Work in Progress (c1976, 62 mins): an incomplete, black and white and un-subtitled work-in-progress cut featuring alternative music
The Making of Sebastiane (1975, 25 mins): Super 8 making-of document shot by the film's sound assistant Hugh Smith and Jarman himself
John Scarlett-Davis Remembers Sebastiane (2018, 7 mins): artist filmmaker John Scarlett-Davis talks about his experiences on the set of Sebastiane
Fully illustrated booklet with writing by William Fowler and full film credits.]