Color, 1976, 90m.
Directed by Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman
Starring Leonardo Treviglio, Barney James, Neil Kennedy, Richard Warwick, Donald Dunham, Ken Hicks
Kino Lorber (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.55:1) (16:9), Second Sight (UK R2 PAL), Umbrella (Australia R0 PAL)

Sebastiane

Working as the set designer on Ken Russell's The Devils must have made a strong impression on director Derek Jarman, who made his feature-length debut in 1976 with Sebastiane, a taboo-pushing study of indulgence, faith, intolerance, and lust. Those themes are spelled out right at the beginning as a Roman court indulges in a costumed orgy that would have made St. Ken proud, complete with bawdy costumed sex play and a shocking execution in which a Christian transgressor has his throat throttled and then torn open by anotherSebastiane's teeth. The captain of the guard, Sebastiane (Trevilgio), attempts to stop this by also proclaiming himself as a Christian, which in turn has him stripped of his rank and sent off to a remote beachside outpost in Sardinia with other low-ranking soldiers. There he is taunted and shunned for his beliefs by the other men, who instead prefer to pass their time swimming, training with swords, and engaging in rowdy horseplay. The local captain, Severus (musician Barney James), finds himself lusting after the unwilling Sebastiane, who rejects violence and temptations of the flesh despite the carnality around him. Instead Sebastiane prefers to spend time with the more introspective Justin (Warwick, the late co-star of If...), which leads to torture and his famous bow-and-arrow martyrdom.

A fascinating nascent example of Jarman's style, Sebastiane grabs the viewer's attention from the outset with the raucous Roman sequence that feels like something out of a particularly perverse glam rock music video, foreshadowing Jarman's punk-inspired Jubilee in the near future. The fact that physique-model-turned-actor Peter Hinwood, Sebastianewho played the title character in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and David Bowie tour dancer Lindsay Kemp (The Wicker Man) are among the revellers only adds to the glitter era atmosphere, and it's something of a jolt when the film shifts locations to suddenly become much more meditative and primal for the rest of its duration. The dreamy landscapes and frequent, then-shocking levels of nudity are still Jarman territory, too, but that's much more in the terrain of his historical films like Edward II or Caravaggio.

The film's take on homosexuality has long been a stumbling block for some viewers, who have trouble reconciling its Christian hero and the dSebastianeominating concept of adhering to one's spiritual path with a film so unabashedly violent and sexual that it was slapped with an X rating. Jarman's own brief comments on the film in his writings fail to shed much light either (and co-director Paul Humfress isn't a frequent interview subject), but most likely, the film was taking a different angle on history by transposing the common experience of a young gay man - being ostracized and experiencing intimidation, persecution, and even physical violence - onto that of a famous Christian figure stranded in an all-male society where the usual norms don't apply. It's a challenging tactic that pays off if you're in the right mindset, but it's easy to see how viewers unfamiliar with both Jarman and the historical basis of St. Sebastian would feel left adrift among all the bare bodies and atmospheric but defiantly anachronistic experimental score by none other than Brian Eno!

As with several subsequent Jarman films, SebasSebastianetiane was shot on 16mm and composed for 1.33:1 projection, so the early full frame VHS releases and TV airings actually didn't lose anything in compositional terms. In a sly move, the most shocking and talked-about moment of the film, a slo-mo shot of actor Ken Hicks at full mast during a mid-film outdoor love scene, had its most offending element at the bottom of the screen matted off when some theaters ran the film at 1.66:1 or 1.85:1, leaving some audiences wondering what all the fuss was about. However, its UK TV airings didn't fare as well with that shot snipped out. When the film made its American DVD debut in 2003 from Kino, it was presented matted (non-anamorphic) at around 1.75:1, which not only censored that one shot but pretty much demolished most of the other shots in the film. That DVD is no longer available by itself and is included only in their Derek Jarman DVD set, which is otherwise excellent and highly recommended.

Fortunately the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray from 2012 bests its standard def predecessors handily with a new HD transfer, framed more spaciously at a ratio in between 1.33:1 and 1.66:1. It's an unusual aesthetic choice but much, much easier to watch than the DVD, and everything seems correctly framed here. Colors are much more vivid and natural here, while the dark layer of grunge that plagued it in the past is largely gone here. Of course it still looks like a '70s film shot in 16mm which means the night scenes will never have the clarity and depth you'd find in a native 35mm film; however, what's here is a vast improvement and most likely the best the film can possibly look. The PCM mono audio is also sharper than the flat soundtrack heard before; in a bold movie, the film was actually shot in colloquial Latin and subtitled in English, an unprecedented move for a British film. The English subtitles here are also optional, so you can easily switch them off and just enjoy the film as a mood piece, too.

Reviewed on September 12, 2012.