Kino Lorber // 1976 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // August 7th, 2012
Justin: "You are marvelous and dance like a god."
Sebastiane: "Not like a god, Justin, but for God."
A fascinating piece of gay cinema history, Sebastiane is the 1976 debut film from late queer auteur Derek Jarman (Caravaggio). It holds the distinction of being the only British film to have subtitles, since it was shot with the actors speaking Latin. It was also the first film to show a male erection, which made it problematic for BBC TV airings in the 1980s. Sebastiane is an art house film that could double as a Sports Illustrated male swimsuit issue; a Biblical epic that concentrates on a man lusting after another man. Kino Lorber unleashes this strange fabulous project on Blu-ray for the first time, and we all get an hour and a half of men in something less than loin cloths being tortured.
Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio, Titus) is a decorated Roman soldier who protests when a man is put to death at a Roman orgy. Banished to a remote Sardinian outpost where there are only male prisoners, the centurion officer in charge falls in love with Sebastiane who is more interested in praying and discovering his spiritual side. Despite all sorts of torture and browbeating, Sebastiane remains steadfastly devoted to his religion. Meanwhile, the rest of the camp explodes around him in psycho-sexual fireworks that suggests a complete descent into pagan depravity.
Sebastiane was shot on the cheap by Derek Jarman and co-director/editor Paul Humfress (Doctor Who). They were working in a new direction in 1976, because England had recently legalized homosexuality and it was becoming more and more chic to be gay. Many celebrated people were joining with them in pushing the envelope in the arts. If you look closely, you can see a good bit of the cast for The Rocky Horror Picture Show in attendance at the film's opening Roman orgy, showing solidarity for the "Don't dream it, be it" movement. The whole UK queer scene was ready to explode, being out and proud without apology. In concept, Jarman and Humfress set out to make a Biblical epic much like The Sign of the Cross or Quo Vadis, only with a more sensational gender flip. Where most religious-themed films told the tale of a man torn between religion and a lady, this would tell of a man hopelessly yearning after another man. A decision was made to have the actors speak in Latin, and the script was given to scholars who slaved to make even the most lurid lines authentic.
Sebastiane is not nearly as racy and devastating as it was in the 1970s. Still, it's odd this is not remembered as well as other gay films, given how far it dared to go. Even if it is more in your face than any sequence in Brokeback Mountain, only a fever dream quality keeps it from feeling too revolutionary. Nudity and sex is actually in short supply, given the narrative, but there are some rather explosive images that make it feel like soft core porn. Most viewers will find it hard to get through, given the Latin dialogue and impressionistic style. If you go in expecting pretty men flashing through what could be a cologne ad for an hour and a half, you should be fine. Sebastiane never clearly defines its characters or story well enough for us to become engaged, but it is so unlike anything you've ever seen that the spectacle makes you not mind.
Kino Lorber brings us the film on Blu-ray, uncut and in 1.66:1/1080p high definition widescreen. Viewing it in the proper aspect ratio is key, because much of the nudity was censored by mistake over the years simply by not showing the entire frame on television and DVD. Here we see every last bit of skin including some notorious shots of erections. Sebastiane has never looked pristine, given that it was shot in 16mm and blown up to the 32mm format. There is grain present and a lack of sharpness that just can't be helped due to its source origins, but this is the best the film is ever going to look. The Dolby 2.0 Mono track is modest, which is fine for the dialogue but rather bad news for the great Brian Eno score. All of this is faithful to the original presentation, so there's no sense in moaning about it. Kino offers us no bonus features, which is a shame given the history of the production.
Sebastiane is a brave 1976 film that dared to explore the homoeroticism of the Biblical age without any sort of apology. It set a new tone for queer cinema, and introduced the world to the artistic vision of Derek Jarman who would pass all too soon in the early '90s. It's sexy, dreamy, and full of artistic flair, with narrative and characters that hardly ever get in the way of the stylish proceedings.
Guilty of being a gay curiosity that will never be replicated.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Latin)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated