Derek Jarman first worked in the film industry as a production designer, for Ken Russell’s The Devils and Savage Messiah. Sebastiane was his solo effort as director (jointly with Paul Humfress, also the film’s editor). Shot on a tiny budget on Sardinia with Latin dialogue, it’s an overtly homoerotic interpretation of the life of St Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio), who was exiled and finally put to death.
Whatever your thoughts about Jarman’s output – and I’ll state right now that I’m not a fan – Sebastiane remains a unique film. Like much of his later career, it was made in the face of considerable opposition. You have to admire Jarman’s courage and resourcefulness in putting his vision on screen, even if you fail to respond to the result. On its release, Sebastiane's explicit content, and copious amounts of male nudity (often full-frontal) proved controversial, equally so when Channel 4 showed it in 1985. Nowadays, its capacity to outrage has lessened, and I suspect anyone likely to be offended would be hardly likely to pick up this DVD in the first place. And even if they did, the opening scene, depicting a feast/orgy at the court of the Emperor Diocletian (and featuring Lindsay Kemp and his troupe) would finish them off.
Sebastiane, made nine years after male homosexuality became legal in Britain, is much more openly defiant than other British gay films of the time (for example, Ron Peck and Paul Hallam’s Nighthawks, from 1979) which, while undoubtedly groundbreaking, seem nowadays almost quaint and apologetic. At one level, Sebastiane is a feature-length study of the male body as erotic object. As most mainstream films are made by and aimed at heterosexual men, it can be startling to be reminded of an alternative view. A film that Sebastiane prefigures is Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, another film that explores the erotic allure of the male body in a desert/military setting. However, there similarities end: an article on the differing ways straight women and gay men view men, as shown by these two films, would be fascinating but is outside the scope of this review.
Jarman and Humfress’s film is in the record books as the only feature film to have Latin dialogue, and hence the only English film to be released in Britain with English subtitles throughout. (I emphasise "English" as I’m not counting the small number of Welsh- and Irish-language films, and Barney Platts-Mills’s brave but misconceived Scots Gaelic Hero.) Jack Welch deserved plaudits for translating the language – including a significant amount of profanity – into Latin, though at one point he resorted to a Greek word, translating “motherfucker” as “Oedipus”.
Sebastiane was shot open-matte in 16mm, but was blown up to 35mm for cinema showings at a wider ratio (either 1.66:1 or 1.75:1). However, if you show the film in 4:3, in one scene you can see at the very bottom of the frame actor Ken Hicks’s real-life erection. This isn’t visible when shown at a wider ratio, which is the reason why the BBFC passed the film in its entirety. (Though having said that, they passed Marco Ferreri’s The Last Woman complete with Gérard Depardieu’s erections, so they may well have been lenient here too.) This scene was featured in Channel 4’s notorious, and never-repeated, documentary Sex and the Censors, making it one of the first erections ever shown on British TV. (Not the very first: small-screen tumescence made its debut a few days earlier in the documentary Damned in the USA.)
Unfortunately, it makes no appearance in Second Sight’s DVD, although the transfer is 4:3. This looks distinctly like it has been panned and scanned slightly: there is no room for cropping at all at the top and bottom of the picture. I saw Sebastiane first in a cinema: it was wider than 4:3 then, but not noticeably cropped. (The DVD picture is also far more grainy than I remember, with a noticeable lack of contrast and shadow detail in dark scenes. Much of this is down to the film’s minuscule budget, though.) Second Sight’s transfer may have TV origins: the subtitling style – white lettering on grey backgrounds – is a giveaway. The subtitles are locked, though I can’t imagine many people being able to understand the dialogue without them!
The original soundtrack was mono. This DVD says “stereo” but that really means in practice 2.0 mono. Only Brian Eno’s score has any separation between left and right: the dialogue and sound effects are flat and compressed-sounding, in other words a typical low-budget mono soundtrack. I doubt much improvement is possible. There are twelve chapter stops, which is adequate for a fairly short film.
There is only one extra, but it’s a worthwhile one: BBC2’s Face to Face interview with Jarman by Jeremy Isaacs, first broadcast on 15 March 1993. It runs 40 minutes with just one chapter stop. It’s 4:3 and mono as you’d expect, but being recorded on professional-standard videotape, its picture quality is excellent, though there are some occasional red fringes. Isaacs questions Jarman about his life and work; Jarman is dignified and often funny. This interview is essential for Jarman fans, and has acquired considerable poignancy as, less than a year after its broadcast, Jarman was dead. There’s one drawback, and it’s a major one: I suspect Jarman fans will also want to buy Second Sight’s edition of Jubilee, and exactly the same extra appears on that disc as well. As for other extras, there aren’t any: I suspect the size of the budget (both to make the film and to market it) precluded a trailer.
Sebastiane remains one of a kind, and followers of Jarman’s work in particular and gay cinema in general will certainly be interested in this DVD. The interview (whichever DVD you watch it on) is very worthwhile too. Although I have reservations about the picture quality in particular, for the reasons above I can recommend this DVD.