Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sebastiane by Derek Jarman

Sebastiane is a feature length film by English filmmaker Derek Jarman about the martyr Saint Sebastian.

People, like whoever wrote the very brief Wikipedia entry on it, don't do the film justice when they say that it's about a homosexual relationship in the Roman legion. The issues are much deeper.

St.Sebastian starts off by being demoted from a position high up in the Roman guards to languishing in a desert outpost because he objects to the arbitrary killing of a person who offended the Emperor at a celebration. He continues to refuse to do things related to killing and fighting, like cleaning swords, at the outpost, which sees no action, and is repeatedly punished for it.

As the film develops the basic tension reveals itself to be between Sebastian's view of the world, which is peaceful and effeminate, and that of Rome, as represented by many of his fellow soldiers and by the commander of the outpost, which turns out to be hateful and to encompass many of the negative features of masculinity.

The Romans stand in for straight society; Sebastian embodies gay society and a point of view that objects to coercion and macho violence. Very interestingly, the homophobia and brutality of the Roman soldiers doesn't fully manifest itself until the end of the film. Before that there seems to be some ambiguity surrounding their attitude to homosexuality in that the matter is openly discussed and people engage in homoerotic masculine games like playing a game throwing a ball to each other nude in a lake. Eventually a couple forms between two of the men, with their love for each other beautifully rendered, but they seem to be reduced in prominence within the larger group after they come together.

The finale comes when the commander of the guard, on seeing the two men embracing in a pool of water, tries to force Sebastian to have sex with him. Sebastian declares that he'll never be able to have him or love him. This is sort of emblematic of straight society, that tries to force people to obey its code and also wants them to except without protest when they want to break that code for their own edification. Either way is victimization.

The film captures both the beauty of male love, rendered in a setting where bodies are showcased through the lack of clothes in a desert environment, and the profound vulnerability of non-straight people in straight society. Sebastian is whipped, tied down in the hot sun, and finally tied to a post and executed by means of arrows for failing to cooperate.

But, he says, he believes in a world beyond this one, beautiful and golden.

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