Martyr is a portrait of male physicality, both playful and restful

A waterfront in Beirut is a place for escape and langurous pleasure in Mazen Khaled’s sensual exploration of corporeality, both in life and in death.

Martyr (2017)

▶︎ Martyr is available on digital platforms including BFI Player.

  • (Mild) spoiler alert: this review reveals the fate of a lead character a third of the way into Martyr.

Although the sexuality of its lead character is never specified, Mazen Khaled’s Martyr casts a distinctly homosocial eye over the constraints, frustrations and pleasurable glimmers of a young man’s life in contemporary Beirut. Stuck at home, struggling to find work and unmotivated by conventional marriage or radical religion, Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) finds some relief from his fears and anxieties hanging out with friends at the waterfront, where bodies loll and glide over and around one another, skin against skin, hearts beating. In the sea, things feel light, fluid, unbounded, free – at least at first.

Martyr offers an intimate, often languorous survey of mostly male sociality and flesh. The camera takes unhurried tours of limbs, faces and hair, bodies in repose, alignment and tension. It follows soap suds down Hassane’s back then peers over his shoulder as he begins masturbating; it also finds him tying his laces, riding his scooter, observing faces as they pass. Home and the street often have a quiet calm that borders on inertia, a sense of waiting apt to Hassane’s ruminative feelings of entrapment and ennui. The water is more playful, dynamic, escapist and risky, the handheld photography moving from ambient to skittish as the energy of the situation shifts.

Hamza Mekdad as Hassane in Martyr

All this is ably supported by Mekdad’s central performance. As Hassane, he brings a credible combination of pent-up dissatisfaction and idealistic longing as well as moments of possible petulance. There’s a convincing balance to his hemmed-in yet empathetic attempts to find a path while showing some consideration to those against whom he chafes, including parents and former friends hinted as being at the start of a potential path to radicalisation.

The film is not simply naturalistic, though. It effectively deploys other formal vocabularies, including carefully composed tableaux vivants and sequences that find characters isolated in abstract, darkened space. These are continuous with stylistic approaches Khaled has developed in earlier projects. Our Gentlemen of the Wings (2011) and Dans les bras de noir (2014), for instance, use dark backdrops and abstract movement, while the Still Life Series (2015) combined tableaux vivants with video installation and live performance.

In Martyr, such techniques bring alluring senses of reverie and alienation to early scenes and grow more potent following Hassane’s drowning, a third of the way through the film, after jumping from the harbour balustrade. (A number of Beiruti youths have in fact died in such a way.) Alongside classical pietà, Khaled orchestrates moments of choreography and underwater suspension, apparent attempts to connect with loved ones, anguished expressions of grief and intimations of release. In this expressionistic mélange, we might see Hassane walk among his friends after his death and feel how he hasn’t left them even though he has.

Martyr (2017)

Hassane’s shocking death throws into relief a range of fault-lines – around confinement, purpose, belonging, identity – yet proves a site of considerable sensitivity and care. Where the early part of the film explores the character’s subjectivity, the later parts consider how his life, death and corpse offer connection and collectivity to those who have known him.

The care shown to the body itself is deep and moving, charting almost every stage of its tender transfer from water to shore to home, and then of its cleansing and preparation for burial. Martyr also attends to the forms of care circulating among the survivors. A potentially contentious set of conditions plays out as an empathetic negotiation of varying claims on Hassane’s body and memory: where Hassane’s mother’s bitter anguish is figured in a searingly dynamic group dance sequence, the kinds of distress experienced by Hassane’s different friendship groups are conveyed more tentatively, with understated guidance from his father. Contested understandings of piety and martyrdom unfold too with generosity and tact, opening up questions about what kinds of sacrifice come on what terms. The effect is sensual, sacred and specific.

Further reading

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