I am reminded in thinking about this film of the arguments of the fabulous Cal Professor Carol J. Clover in her explosive Men, Women, and Chainsaws who, to reduce an argument far beyond what it deserves, achieves the association of the intended audience not with the victimizer but with the victimized ... she argued that the young men who love slasher films are not vicariously murdering women, but rather vicariously becoming women who are murdered or, in the case of the heroines, threatened with murder. Let me pause to say that anyone who loves structure or argument in fiction or performance needs to visit Carol Clover's work. I'll get back to why she comes to mind in thinking about Sebastiane.
This film is about Severus. Remember that Severus is the blond long-haired, fabulously sexy commander who ties up and tortures Sebastian, but cannot bring himself to rape him. The film is about Severus because he is the subject of Sebastian's erotic and unattainable objectness. As subject, as actor, it is Severus who cannot penetrate, that is to say he cannot be active, and ends up by substituting the arrowing execution for his impotence. The impulse to activity is reduced to impotence by nothing more than witnessing the Christian in his refusal of body, sensuality, and the old gods.
The film when it appeared was deemed "controversial" because of the saturated male nudity (only one erection, by the way, which the British censors excised, as it were) and the open and positive expressions of male homosexuality, a first by many reckonings. Most common critics seem to focus on this controversy, but the controversy really amounts to nothing more than one part of a doubled deception by the auteur, Jarman. Both the controversy and the covering provided by the only apparently positive portrayal of a Christian saint obscure the penetrating insight into what Christianity actually meant in the late empire, and how in the end it succeeded in destroying its foes and compelling them to its will. So when you think about this film, ignore the pseudo-controversy, and confront the layered deceptions of authorial intent.
One central deception is that we think the film is about Sebastian. But he has only one action in the film ... to be or have become a Christian ... while Severus continually confronts his impotence, his inability to assert his due authority, his failure to take the one he wants, and the fact that that failure transmogrifies into desire. When he states that he loves Sebastian, it is only because he cannot have him, and he cannot have him not because Sebastian actively forbids it, but because Sebastian's passivity undermines his activity. Sebastian in the middle of being tortured passively intones that Severus can never have him and never did have him. Christianity is about denial ... denial of passion, eroticism, human contact.
Here again, Jarman represents Christianity in action before the state, in the form of Constantine, adopted and transformed it. The action is passive ... Christianity bears witness but does nothing. It forces the cults and the practices and the orgies and every activity of paganism both in its moribund classical form and moreso in the new mystery cults that arose in the vacuum of dessicated Roman religion ... it forces them slowly to come round to it. It does so in the same way that Sebastian ensnares Severus by his sublime passivity. This is the great insight that Jarman, both by his weak narrative and his strong structure, communicates in this consuming film. Christianity won by its sublime passivity. Later, of course, it consolidated its victory by ferocious activity, but this is not Jarman's project to elucidate.
It may appear curious that Severus does not appear at the execution; his final penetrating victory takes place in his absence ... and why is that? This is where the subtlety of Jarman's vision hides in plain sight. Because the absence of Severus proves the identity of the victim and the victimizer. For the audience who has been deceived into thinking that the film is about Sebastian whom they never can become, rather than Severus who they indubitably are, the absence of Severus at the climax allows the deception to achieve its effect. There is Sebastian, expiring and ecstatic, in agony and yet fading ... we want to be him, to take him, to absorb him ... but in that longing, we have become Severus, and his absence points to our being there in his place. The deceptive author has stripped him out of the action and forced us to be there. And in being there, we who are Severus cannot help but try to identify with the very Sebastian who has told us we cannot have him.
But the arrowing does not need us any more than any other part of the film needs us, and so it is quiet, impassive, lacking in the drama that any execution should naturally have. And that is because in the end this film is not about us, it is not about Sebastian ... it is about Severus and his world that Sebastian and you and I have destroyed by our infernal passivity and resignation and acceptance of that which ends up happening.
The double movement of denial, followed by denial of denial. We are not there, and we deny that we are not there.
Back to Clover ... "What makes horror 'crucial enough to pass along' is ... what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: Its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings ... just as the attacker and the attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares, so they are expressions of the same self in horror film." (pp 11-12). Severus and Sebastian are the same. But Sebastian is unattainable, so we are stuck with being Severus ... desirous, frustrated, defeated, catharsized. And Christ, unnamed, "you'll never have me, and you've never had me." Christianity as the unattainable, bodiless, anti-erotic. See what we have lost, what has been taken from us. This is Jarman's genius.
Other posts on Sebastiane:
Evocative Vocative Disambiguation
Sebastian: Patron Saint of Gay Men
Both images from my TV, the first of the arrowing, the second the ineffable, unattainable Sebastian at his moment of denial.