VOD film review: Martyr
Direction and cinematography7
Choreography and symbolism7
Matthew Turner | On 12, Mar 2021
Director: Mazen Khaled
Cast: Hamza Mekdad, Carol Abboud, Hadi Bou Ayash, Moustafa Fahs, Raneem Mourad
Watch Martyr online in the UK: BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Sky Store
Written and directed by Mazen Khaled, this Lebanese drama begins on a hot day in Beirut, where 20-something Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) is getting grief from his mother (Carol Abboud) and father about the company he keeps and the fact that he’s just lost yet another job. Bored and frustrated, he heads to the beach with his group of male friends, where they discuss their dismal prospects, both in terms of romance and employment.
However, everything changes when Hassane takes a fatal dive off the edge of the promenade, drowning in the pool below before his best friend (Moustafa Fahs) can reach him. As his friends gather up Hassane’s body and take him home to his parents, the film becomes an increasingly abstract and poetic study of grief, bound up with the rituals necessary for cleansing the body.
Khaled gives the film a palpable feeling of fluidity, in keeping with the way water is used throughout the film – in addition to the method of Hassane’s death, the film opens with him dreaming about being naked underwater and there’s a slightly comical shower scene (with his father interrupting his masturbation concentration by yelling about him using up all the water), as well as the water that’s eventually used in the cleansing ritual.
The film is incredibly tender and sensual. It’s never made explicit that Hassane and his friends are homosexual, but their relationship is, at the very least, homoerotic and the gorgeous camerawork (by Talal Khoury and Rachel Noja) lingers over every touch.
The most striking element is the way Khaled deftly moves from reality to a sort of visual poetry. The sequence in which Hassane’s friends pull his body back up onto the promenade is heart-breaking and beautiful, but also racked with pain as the men take turns to shield Hassane’s corpse from bumping into the stone walls with their own bodies. The images recall the tableau of a Biblical painting, with multiple limbs entwined around the body.
Similarly, Khaled uses impressive visual techniques to convey the stillness of that moment of collective shock and grief – at one point the image of the men carrying Hassane is frozen, except the waves are still lapping in the background. Later, the film weaves in traditional, dramatic depictions of grief with abstract fantasy sequences, often set against a jet-black background, including a touching dance between Mekdad and Fahs. The film also descends into its own respectful silence, as there’s virtually no dialogue once the mother and father have taken their son’s body into their home.
Finally, Khaled’s film beautifully illustrates both the reasons for the cleansing ritual and its symbolism, leaving you with a powerful sense of sadness, but also an understanding of the way a community processes its grief. A moving, contemplative and profoundly spiritual piece of work.