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300 A.D. : the Roman Sebastianus is exiled to a remote outpost populated exclusively by men. Weakened by their desires, these men turn to homosexual activities to satisfy their needs. However, Sebastianus becomes the target of lust for a homosexual centurion, but he rejects the man's advances. Written by
Jonathon Dabell <J.D.@pixie.ntu.ac.uk>
Derek Jarman was, like his contemporary Peter Greenaway still is, a visual artist working in film. The usual obsessions of the movie industry didn't occupy him overmuch. Psychology, character development, narrative, plot - all those were secondary considerations, if they were considered at all. The main preoccupation was the expressive power of the the image. To those of us reared on conventional, industrial cinema, this makes Jarman's (and Greenaway's) work both refreshing and frustrating in equal measure.
SEBASTIANE is not, then, a conventional film. It would be misleading to assess it in conventional terms. At times it is jokey, revelling in its low budget and independent spirit. At other times, it is so beautiful it takes your breath away. And at other times it seems to crawl along, with dull acting beneath a luxuriously blue Sardinian sky.
Leonardo Treviglio is a stunning, intense Sebastian, a Renaissance painting come to life. As his tormentor Severus, Barney James successfully conveys frustration and bewilderment behind his icy-grey eyes. Richard Warwick (probably the best known actor, having made a mark as one of the young rebels in Lindsay Anderson's IF...) is quietly impressive as Sebastian's only friend in the outpost. A lot is required of Neil Hamilton as the gruff Maximus, which is a pity because he is unconvincing enough to be a distraction.
Personally, I think SEBASTIANE succeeds as a cinematic study of the isolation at the centre of martyrdom. It doesn't indulge in psychological speculation. It simply depicts some of the temptations, struggles, and sufferings involved. The sensuality of the lives of the other soldiers is at odds with the kind of life Sebastian wants to live. Jarman and his co-director (and editor) Paul Humfress show all this with great clarity.
However, one of the side-effects of such clarity is emotional detachment. We watch as if the film were an installation in an art gallery. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you remember that's what you're looking at. Otherwise you might emerge from SEBASTIANE thinking that it's a failure, a halfway-house between an art-film and a porn-movie. For me, though, it's pretty successful on its own terms. And because it was a pioneering piece of film-making in other ways (Latin dialogue, gay lovemaking, self-conscious anachronisms), SEBASTIANE will always have a place in cinema history.
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