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on 8 August 2015
Having been impressed by Derek Jarman’s ‘Caravaggio’ and also being aware of his earlier work as production designer on Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’, I decided to work my way through Jarman’s films one by one, starting with this first film, ‘Sebastiane’ (1976). Despite being spoken in Latin with subtitles, I was well impressed with its naturalness and spontaneity. There are lots of shots that are of the moment where nothing is said. (But the effect of some of the poetic lines are lost in wooden delivery by certain actors.)
It seems Jarman started as he meant to go on, with an unrestricted sexual atmosphere but without the bawdiness that can sometimes inhibit the grace that might be found in the films of Ken Russell. For instance, the opening scene (the only studio shot) features a party in the palace of the emperor Diocletian where a clownish male dancer is surrounded by others each bearing an extended phallus. We can laugh but Jarman refuses to ornament the scene further.
Instead the rest of the film was shot on the island of Sardinia in the sunny Mediterranean, where Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio) has been exiled and where any lewdness is filmed in context and not exploited for effect. Near-naked and naked men practice their fighting in the sunshine; play in the waters; ride horses; lounge in the shade; lie in the sun; play discus on the beach; relax in the sauna. They kiss, cuddle, and cavort; they fight, hunt and sharpen their weapons. There is no grand production design here; rather, an easy naturalism. It must be one of the least intense movies in my DVD collection.
Meanwhile, in contrast, Sebastiane the Christian is subjected to the cruel tortures of Severus (Barney James), the blond commanding officer of the small group of Roman soldiers posted to oversee the exiles. Sebastiane must also put up with the gibes of fellow-exile and bore, Max (Neil Kennedy), whose advances are refused.
There is some arresting camerawork, such as the pastoral scene with Samid the goatherd or the mottled light of the sun reflected in the waves. And one scene in particular is striking: Sebastiane is still trussed up after having been flogged. The camera looks down over him in the darkening twilight so that we hardly see that he is there. Meanwhile pigs scavenge at his feet. Yet there is also some poor framing with heads of soldiers stationed on the tower cut off.
My DVD has 4:3 perspective. Was it ever shot in widescreen? The final ten minutes featuring Sebastiane’s execution, the subject of so many beautiful works of art, would certainly have benefited from such an angle. But the film is certainly best seen more than once to fully appreciate Jarman’s film-making gifts.
My disc has an extra, a wide-ranging forty-minute interview Jarman gave to Jeremy Isaacs in 1993. Despite being faced with some strange questions, Jarman is full of life and humour. Of ‘Sebastiane’, he thought it “a great muddle … a sort of exploration,” heavily reliant on the skills of others. Well, this “great muddle” is also a film of striking originality and boded well for the future.