303AD. Emperor Diocletian demotes his favourite guard Sebastian to ordinary soldier and despatches him to a backwater barracks because the suspects him of being a covert Christian. Eventually, Sebastian is martryred, and becomes a saint.
Shot entirely in sub-titled Latin, which makes it a strange precedent for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Sebastiane is Derek Jarman’s first work as a director (though he shared the job with the less well-known Paul Humfress). It’s a strange combination of gay nudie movie, pocket-sized Ancient Roman epic and meditation upon the image of Saint Sebastian.
It opens with the Lindsay Kemp dance troupe romping around with huge fake phalluses to represent Ken Russell-style imperial decadence, then decamps to Tuscany where athletic youths in minimal thongs romp around the countryside, soaking themselves down between bouts of manly horseplay or sylvan frolic. It comes to a bad end as the lecherous but guilt-ridden commanding officer Severus fails to cop off with Sebastian and instead visits floggings and tortures upon his naked torso, finally ordering his men to riddle the future saint with arrows, thus securing him a place in cultural history.
The public schoolboy cleverness of scripting dialogue in Latin – a popular soldier’s insult is represented by the Greek ‘Oedipus’ – works surprisingly well, with the cast reeling off profane Roman dialogue like passionate Italian declarations rather than marbled classical sentences. It suffers from the not-uncommon skinflick failing that the best-looking actor is given the largest role but delivers the weakest performance: Treviglio’s Sebastian is a handsome cipher, far less interesting than the rest of the troubled, bullying, awkward or horny soldiers in the platoon. The countryside looks as good as the cast, and Brian Eno delivers an evocative, ambient-style score.