Martyr is a Lebanese art-house drama film written and directed by Mazen Khaled about the sudden drowning of a young man at a seaside hang-out and the following rituals and ceremonies that are undertaken as part of his community and culture.
Set in a poor part of Beirut, the story revolves around Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) who is an adult still living with his parents after loosing yet another job and is suffocating under their rules. But on this day instead of job-hunting he goes to the beach with his friends, a group of young similarly directionless men. Whilst swimming Hassane launches into a lengthy monologue about the seemingly pointlessness of his existence and describes the mundane of his day-to-day life.
At a rather dramatic turn of events, he takes a risky and ill-planned dive into rocky water where he meets his death. His friends are then forced to compute the sudden loss whilst dealing with the practicality of organising the appropriate way of transporting Hassane’s body to his mother and adhering to their societal expectations surrounding death. Once Hassane is in his mother’s arms, the procession of events leading to the funeral begins.
Whilst being a strikingly realistic refection of death and people’s immediate reaction to it, this movie is also romantic and poetic. Furthermore, there appears to be an ongoing theme of water and drowning that is set up in the opening credits where the camera continuously and slowly circles Hassane’s body under water.
The film seems to be capturing an atmosphere, a mood, and a culture, rather than telling a story. This could really be conveyed in a short-film and the 84 minutes (which is considerably short for a feature today) feels like it drags. And yet, the slowness of shots, and the time taken to show the full washing and dressing of the deceased, is extremely evocative and something we rarely experience in modern filmmaking.
Khaled displays artistic direction, with freeze frames and choreographed movement in certain scenes. There is also a beautiful yet ominous score by Zeid Hamdan and Vladimir Kurumilian that takes the spotlight particularly in the long opening scene and in the end credits. This is abruptly juxtaposed by the very ‘real life’ scenes accompanied by long moments of silence.
There is a lot of vagueness in this film. The main part being the sensuality and homoeroticism of many of the shots. The countless long shots trailing Hassane’s bare body suggests a tribute to the male form. This, along with the obvious closeness of the group of young men – both physically and emotionally – suggests perhaps that homosexuality is a theme.
It is feasible that perhaps this also contributes to Hassane and his friends’ daily struggle in a culture that would likely be unaccepting. But alas, we can only speculate.
Martyr overall is a fine example of powerful, evocative and artistic filmmaking yet it lacks story and drive and therefore feels far too slow for a feature length film.
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