Clicking and Streaming: Derek Jarman's art porn tone poem 'Sebastiane'

City Paper

St. Sebastian, as painted by Botticelli, Rubens, and Titian, just to name a few, is easily the most bonerific of the Christian martyrs. It is this inarguable fact that fuels Derek Jarman’s totally hawt, historically neo-realist, and radical take on the story of a Roman soldier revealed to be a Christian and thus executed. 

Jarman’s Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio) is a queer conundrum. He denies his fellow Roman soldiers’ sexual advances, possibly because he’s straight or maybe a masochist (denial is its own pleasure, especially when you’re punished for it as gloriously as Sebastiane is punished, tied to a stake, penetrated by arrows), but probably because his queerness is more staid than most of the soldiers’ casual homoeroticism (they fuck each other for fun and because there are no women around; though to complicate things, two of the soldiers are sincere lovers and they’re mocked for this) and deeply tied to his spirituality. All the way up to its final shot—a Jodorowsky-ian, bleary-eyed, wide-angle shot from Sebastiane’s point of view, the sun beating down on him, his killers staring at him—“Sebastiane” is inscrutable.

Although Jarman would go on to make more polished and better movies than this one, sturdier works like “The Tempest” and “The Last of England” lack the raw-nerve ambition of “Sebastiane.” All of the dialogue is in Latin, homosexuality is depicted as totally commonplace, and the frenzied sets, sunburnt outdoor locations, and distracted camera work gives it an underground cinema vibe—part imaginative John Waters-ian lark and part somber camp of Kenneth Anger. 

There are also shades of Orson Welles’ “Othello,” Federico Fellini’s “Satyricon,” and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel of Saint Matthew” here, but more than any of that, “Sebastiane,” raw and replete with doted-upon bodies, including a minutes-long slow-motion sequence of two naked muscular hot dudes wrestling in water, evokes ’70s porn. And the score, narcotic Brian Eno music composed just as he was entering his ambient phase, has the bubbling synths of old gay porn music minus the butt-fucking-friendly funk and disco rhythms bow-chicka-wow-wow stuff, which makes “Sebastiane” a just-polite-enough, plaintive art porn tone poem. 

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