The potential of life and the closure provided by death both feature strongly in this unique work. 


Mazen Khaled was born in Beirut and that city is the setting for this his second feature. It's a film of quite remarkable individuality and has a vision that is all his own. Khaled is writer as well as director and what he has created is sufficiently unusual to make it certain that Martyr will not appeal to all. Oddly enough one reason why it may disappoint lies in the fact that Martyr has participated in film festivals at both Venice and Lisbon and on each occasion has been categorised as a queer film. The inevitable consequence is that gay audiences will be attracted to it and then in many cases will be taken aback to find that Martyr is a work that contains no sex scenes. In fact, you don't need a gay sensibility to be able to respond to what is in fact a celebration of the human body even though in this case it is the male body that is studied. It is however necessary to appreciate those kind of minimalistic films that play down story. There is a plot of a kind here but it takes second place to those key images which are then linked to an awareness of what is lost when death comes at an early age.


The central figure in Martyr is a young man named Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) who comes from a poor background. He lives with his parents and is unemployed but, all too aware of his limited prospects, he is less inclined to pursue possible work than to relax on a beach with his friends. They not only swim but dive from a high point into the sea which can be dangerous. And so it proves when it leads to Hassane drowning. His background may give this piece a certain social relevance, but even so the focus in the first half of the film is on the male camaraderie which certainly involves bonding. It could be thought that it extends to sexual feelings but, if it does do so, they go unexpressed in words. As for the film's second half, it simply sees the body taken back to Hassane's home by his friends and it is there that we witness certain rituals of mourning. Prominent here is the washing and laying out of the body, a sequence of great respect that brings to mind the stage play by D.H. Lawrence, The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, which featured a comparable scene.


However, because this is cinema and not theatre, the close-up photography so intent on male flesh has an impact of a special kind. That aspect is crucial to what Khaled is trying to express here and it makes Martyr a deeply sensual film in which the sensuality is equally present in shots of the sea. The realism of the setting is emphasised through atmospheric music, but that does not prevent the film from also including some more stylised passages. These range from dream images (some of them undersea) to a brief dance sequence inserted as a distinct and separate section. Mixing these elements together does not always make for a work that fully coheres. Nevertheless, the poetic quality of this work turns it into a threnody albeit one which while portraying loss is also deeply conscious of the sense of life and potential that exist within the human body. Khaled gives us a film quite unlike any other and is wise enough to avoid a long running time so that it does not feel overextended. For the right audience, this will be a haunting film.




Cast: Hamza Mekdad, Carol Abboud, Moustafa Fahs, Hadi Bou Ayash, Raneem Mourad, Rashad Nasreddine, Rabih el Zaher.


Dir Mazen Khaled, Pro Diala Kachmar, Screenplay Mazen Khaled, Ph Talal Khoury and Rachel Lenoja, Pro Des Bshara Atallah, Ed Vartan Avakian, Music Zeid Hamdan and Vladimir Kurumilian, Costumes Bshara Atallah, Choreography Ali Chahrour.


Artrip Production/Biennale College Cinema-Peccadillo Pictures.
84 mins. Lebanon/Italy. 2017. Rel: 12 March 2021. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. No Cert.