A statue of Saint Sebastian, photographed by me in Vienna earlier this month.
What is it?
A 1976 film by English director Derek Jarman.
And it’s about Saint Sebastian. He’s your favourite saint, isn’t he?
Yes, he’s my patron saint. I even have an arrow tattoo (my only one) in his honour. But the film is about his life before he was a saint. He was a soldier in the armed forces of the Roman Empire.
And the film is his story?
The story of the end of his life, his martyrdom as a Christian. Not a huge lot is known about the real Sebastian, but the way Jarman depicts his story here, he is exiled by the Roman emperor, who is paranoid about Christians, to a remote posting with a handful of other soldiers. Miles from anyone else (including women), the horny young men turn violent and bestial, but also (in some cases) discover the joys of same-sex love (or at least same-sex sex). Sebastian becomes the apple of the eye of Severus, the commander, but Sebastian isn’t interested; his devotion is more metaphysical, he’s in love with a (male) sun god. So finally, in an act of retribution, Severus has Sebastian tied to a stake and the other soldiers shoot arrows into him—the iconic image of Saint Sebastian that has been depicted in countless paintings and statues.
I have so many questions. Sebastian is a gay icon, yes?
He is, but we have no reason to think he was gay. He’s always portrayed as a young, muscly guy (he was a soldier), and artists across the centures have enjoyed juxtaposing his physical beauty against the violence of the arrows, and for some of us this is a big turn-on, and so he became a gay icon, the “gay saint.”
But he’s not gay in this film?
Who knows? He’s a very dreamy, gentle young man. He permits affectionate gestures from a fellow soldier who is clearly attracted to him, but one has the impression that his attentions are really directed elsewhere, towards more metaphysical things. But the god he loves is male, and he describes him as being beautiful. So, perhaps a desexualized same-sex romantic attraction.
And he gets martyred for being desexualized?
The other guys (with the exception of the one whose attentions he permits) are really base. Some of them probably hate what he represents. Some of them probably fear what he represents (because it could be in them too). Some of them just love violence—of which there is a lot in this film.
Did you enjoy this film?
It’s not really a film that one enjoys. It’s not really plot-driven (although there is a plot). It’s quite slow, with a lot of erotic passages, which are beautifully filmed. Also a lot of violence, which could be sexy if that’s your thing (it’s one of the things I didn’t love about the film, this link that is created between homosexuality and physical pain). In my mind, Sebastiane is a cross between erotica/pornography and art house cinema.
Does that mix result in a film deserving of stars?
I’m giving it one star, because there are moments of incredible beauty, and gay men will all love this film for the sexiness of the men involved (most of whom wear nothing but thongs and sandals throughout the film, and sometimes not even that). But it’s a bit lifeless, some of it is deeply irritating (there is one character who is so animalistic, I couldn’t bear it, I kept turning the sound down), and in the end I’m not sure it says anything—nothing is discussed in any depth, it’s largely visual. Still, it provides a memorable portrayal of a major queer icon, it’s gay from start to finish, so it’s worth seeing despite its longueurs.
One last question. Why is it called Sebastiane and not Sebastian?
The film is in Latin. I guess this makes it more authentic, and more biblical. But it also distances it even more.