a homoerotic homage to the legend of the Christian martyr
Cue the seventies. A decade in which the queer cinema of today was yet to be born and a time when films such as The Boys in the Band / 1970, Cabaret / 1972 and A Very Natural Thing / 1973 amongst a handful of others, marked a brave step toward gay cinematic liberation. Yet no work of this era arrived with such outright pride, let alone overt homosexual content, as did the like of Sebastiane, namely Derek Jarman's homoerotic homage to the legend of the Christian martyr.
It was a film that took the story of Saint Sebastian and literally turned it on its head, creating along the way a landmark in gay cinema. For this was gay cinema of the like that you had not seen before. For with no-where to go, no-one to fight and nothing to do, here was a group of Roman soldiers who habitually spent their days cleansing their naked bodies and otherwise engaging in acts of a more 'physical nature.' Call it male bonding, call it friendship, but in depicting such this film spoke, albeit in Latin, of homosexual love.
And we're not only talking about love, but that of the out and proud acts associated with it. Kissing, caressing, the movement of male body against male body, all captured on film for your viewing pleasure. For finally here was a work that was proud to be gay and one that arrived complete with male nudity, overt phallus imagery, same-sex lovemaking and if the censors missed it, an all out male erection! Yet the end product arrived on-screen thanks largely to Derek Jarman having surmounted numerous obstacles that lay in his cinematic path, notably continual battles for funding, together with problems with certain members of the crew who viewed this work as sheer pornography. Indeed it was its famed lovemaking sequence, or to be more precise fifteen seconds from such that depicted an actor in a heightened state of penile arousal, that would forever cause problems. Notably with its BBFC certified print and later with its Channel Four presentation and edited DVD release.
Yet whilst the film depicts Sebastiane's obsessive love of the Christian faith over the fictitious homosexual desire of his Captain, remnants of the truth to the legend remain. For Sebastian was indeed a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and who was subsequently killed for his unrepentant devotion to the Christian doctrine. Then again, his death did not lie with the arrows that were shot into his body, but which miraculously failed to pierce any of his vital organs; rather with a stoning thereafter. But that said, his arrow pierced body did give birth to one of the most familiar images of Christian iconography and the perfect source for artists of the Renaissance to paint religious, yet deeply homoerotic works.
Not to be confused with the tender 1995 Norwegian coming out feature Sebastian, or the 1968 Dirk Bogarde film of the same name; this variant of the title marks one of the earliest films to blatantly depict homosexuality within the arena of Christianity, freed as it was from the strict sexual prohibition of yesteryear and a director knowledgeable in the ways to get around the existing censorship of the day. And yet it is more than this. For this work ranks as one of the pioneering films of the New Queer Cinema movement, namely films made for the viewing pleasure of a gay, strictly number six on the Kinsey scale, audience. And the rest, as they say, is history.