The late British writer-director Derek Jarman wasn't known for subtlety. Prior to his death in 1994 from AIDS-related complications, he had taken an unapologetically gay, often erotic approach to such historical subjects as Caravaggio, Edward II, William Shakespeare and various queens of England. We should also be grateful to Jarman for highlighting actress Tilda Swinton in nearly all of his films, leading to her current status as a GLBT favorite and recent Oscar winner.
Jarman sparked international controversy with his first feature, Sebastiane. His all-male, nearly all-nude depiction of the final days of early Christian martyr St. Sebastian manages to both titillate and provoke. Sebastiane, originally released in 1976, will be receiving a special screening at Outfest this Saturday night. It is also available on DVDfrom Kino Video.
Little is known about the historical St. Sebastian other than that he was a Roman soldier ultimately put to death for his Christian faith when Christianity was still illegal. Artistic depictions of Sebastian's athletic young body, clad in a minimal loincloth and pierced with arrows, have similarly excited and repulsed the devout for centuries.
Jarman's imagined biography actually caused a riot upon its premiere at an Italian film festival. Religious conservatives were furious that the filmmaker would situate the beloved saint in a homosexual hothouse atmosphere. They seem to have missed the point, however, that Sebastiane (played by truly beautiful Leonardo Treviglio) remains resolute in his faith despite constant abuse and temptation by the fellow soldiers charged with his execution.
Also, while modern filmgoers may be under the impression that Mel Gibson was the first director to make a movie completely in Latin with his 2004 The Passion of the Christ, it was actually Jarman who first did so with Sebastiane. Of course, the anti-gay Gibson likely hasn't seen Jarman's homoerotic historical epic ... or at least hasn't admitted to it.
If you've never seen Sebastiane, I can't recommend it highly enough as both a pioneering work in gay cinema and a serious study of religious faith under persecution. I also recommend his films The Garden and Edward II for the same reasons.
A new documentary about Jarman, simply titled Derek and written by Swinton, is making its debut at Outfest this week. I hope to see it by festival's end.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.