Martyr, directed by the Lebanese born Mazen Khaled, follows a day in the life of Hassane, a young man whose life meets sudden tragedy on the beaches of Beirut, Lebanon. What follows is a stunningly sensual and compassionate portrayal of a community facing their grief and facing each other.
The film was selected for several festivals including London’s BFI Flare, and it won the Best Actress award for Carol Abboud as Hassane’s mother and Best Artistic Achievement for Khaled at the Alexandria International Film Festival. It’s really no wonder why. Creating a sense of place, and a sense of intimacy with your characters is no easy thing. Martyr is made up of subtle movements and stolen glances, when the camera carefully reveals the characters’ inner lives. Hassane and his friends have whole worlds of emotion bubbling under the surface.
The opening sequence reveals to us Hassane’s naked body floating underwater as the camera moves over the curves and contours of his physical form. I was reminded of Tom Ford’s A Single Man, which gorgeously photographed the male body with tenderness and realism. Where much of cinema, especially in the mainstream, has shot the male form to convey uptight brute force, here we see it as something ephemeral and beautiful.
After this opening we are taken into Hassane’s domestic life. He is unemployed and lives in an impoverished neighborhood in close quarters with his parents, who are desperate for him to fix his life while he has no clue how. All he has are his friends.
There is a tired world-weariness mixed with a boyish innocence in Hamza Mekdad’s performance as Hassane. He rides into town, picks up his friend, and as they stop near some young women his friend grips his waist more firmly. Is there an attraction between them? Perhaps. Whether there is a romantic bond or a platonic friendship there is a tenderness here that they fear yet yearn to show one another.
The men laze around at the seafront and discuss the idea of jumping from the bridge over head into the water. Khaled has said, “The shore’s their freedom but really the water is their peace and they are looking for a peaceful life.” Water surrounds you and it can kill you, but it also sets you free. It makes you weightless as if you can fly. As with intimacy there is risk there but there is also freedom.
Then Hassane decides to make the leap, crashing into the water, only for his body to gradually rise to the surface. As his friend cradles his dead body the shot is framed with the delicacy of a Caravaggio. The men gently shepherd him to shore, the distance between them quickly breaking down. Later they will delicately, tenderly wash his lifeless body. Mazen Khaled has said that he wanted this tragic event to feel almost like liberation from a life of struggle. This idea is most clear in the scenes when the actors appear in a darkened space with explosions of physical movement and dance. Again, physicality becomes the key to something deeper.
Small poignant images abound, such as when Hassane’s friend looks to Hassane’s mother as she is consumed by grief and gently brushes a hair away from her face. Carol Abboud’s performance is brutally powerful, her whole physicality consumed by her grief. The rest of the cast also deliver tender, open performances. There is little dialogue, with more emphasis on the way humans communicate through the bodies.
By exploring death, and life, Mazen Khaled creates an intimate portrayal of a community in pain, and a moving examination of human relationships. The film transforms from a vision of frustrated desire into something redemptive and spiritual, as if finding clarity in the depths of the ocean. Martyr carries us deep into its characters inner lives, creating an intimacy that the characters themselves struggle to find with each other. It’s a short film, only 84 minutes, and in that time it gives us a snapshot of this world and these lives, and through its exploration of pain we are given something powerfully life affirming.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures