In the year when Brokeback Mountain (cross-reference below) is snapping up many awards and filling theatres everywhere (er, well not in China anytime soon), it is instructive to revisit Jarman’s début feature to see what might still be learned about queer cinema three decades later.
Much of the critical writing surrounding this creative tour de force focuses on the homoerotic flavour of the production. But of course it wasn’t Jarman that began that process. Being sentenced to death by arrows for being a Christian (but surviving only to be stoned another day; martyred in 287), gave licence to many artists to strip Sebastian of his vestments, stretch his lithe physique (usually hands above the head) taut on the wooden pole (er, no cross here—already taken) in order to graphically illustrate the body beautiful and its numerous piercings. Irony abounds, given that Sebastian is the patron saint of archers, athletes and soldiers—all of which, in Jarman’s hands, conspire to kill the one amongst their exiled number who knows that “truth is beautiful.”
As Jarman has demonstrated on many other occasions (notably Edward II, cross-reference below), while he is happy to rewrite scenes to suit his own vision and desire, he is ever-mindful of the generally accepted historical view (still, what historical writings are immune to the subjectivity of those who select, order and interpret the facts?). Now, with the benefit of perfect vision in hindsight, the twin notions of the Saint’s designation as protector from the plague and the Sun-god Apollo’s defeat of enemies by showering them with deadly pestilence-laden arrows, prophetically gives the film further richness as the then unidentified HIV/AIDS epidemic prepared to take the world by storm. To this day, countless millions still harbour the sentiment that this virulent disease is a just reward for those who willingly participate in ungodly acts.
The central drama revolves around the former Palace Guard Captain, Sebastian (courageously portrayed by Leonardo Treviglio, whose oft-naked body is more a spectacular specimen of manhood than a sexual object) and his Sardinian minder Severus (Barney James—an Apollo in his own right, replete with pleading blue eyes and sun-bleached golden locks). The representative of all-things-Roman lusts after the god-fearing Christian, but can’t overcome the equally strong devotion to an invisible deity that gives Sebastian the strength to endure the spiteful whippings, unwanted touches and spread-eagled sessions under the searing desert heat.
Without many plot points to make, Jarman and co-director Paul Humfress (who also edits) combine the expert cinematography of Peter Middleton with Brian Eno and Andrew Thomas Wilson’s richly textured score, serving up a feast of flesh that speaks more to the unabashed camaraderie of Sebastian and his “disciples” than the “shocking” possibility that some men do love their brothers.
The hero’s extended solo shower under the infatuated eye of his tormentor sets a beautiful tone early on. Water also figures prominently in the Narcissus-like gaze into a pool as the doomed young man admires himself while praying to his heavenly father. Unforgettable is the juxtaposition of slow-motion tenderness as comrades-in-arms Anthony (Janusz Romanov) and Adrian (Ken Kicks) revel privately in a nearby lagoon while Sebastian refuses Severus’ advances, elevating their love-hate relationship to the brink of despair.
Comic relief comes in the person of Maximus (Neil Kennedy) who disdains all things queer and Christian even as he straps on a true coq d’or dildo then plays with the troops and a live pig.
The tension of the death sentence seems like the inevitable bookend to the opening party prologue. There, a white-face male-nymph is surrounded by a covey of near-bare admirers in a Dance of the Strap-on Dicks (choreographed by Lindsay Kemp) that is funnier than hot. But the hilarity is quickly truncated when the throng observes the swift revenge Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley) exacts on any wayward youth from his intimate circle. In a manner that is drenched in subtext, his black enforcer eats the hapless victim’s neck—summoning up innumerable tableaus from Prometheus to Dracula. “Eat me” at its coarsest incarnation.
Similarly, the final moments bear repeated visits. The silent death (with only a parched wind on the track), Max’s cruel forcing of Sebastian-friend Justin into launching another arrow into the unrepentant carcass, then a magnificent cut to the point of view from society’s victim—seeing only the backs of those exacting justice, even as his primary tormentor faces stoically into the brilliant sun.
In retrospect, this cinematic accomplishment sparks the artistic imagination to wonder what The Passion of the Christ might have become in Jarman’s more sensitive hands. JWR