Grief is a contradictory emotion: an intangible state of mind, while inducing overwhelming physical responses. Mazen Khaled’s masterly Martyr strikes the right balance as it simultaneously grounds the act of grieving in the real as well as the abstract.
On a hot summer day in Beirut, Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) is restless. He lives with his parents who constantly nag him to get a job. Even his masturbation session in the shower is interrupted by his father grumbling about water waste. Dreaming of being submerged in the ocean, Hassane tries to find release at the seaside with his friends, equally aimless loafers who complain about stifling Beirut and their dire romantic prospects. Hassane, in a moment of bizarre clarity, climbs up above the rocky beach and takes a fatal dive. His body crashes into the water and suddenly, all that visible is sea-foam. Hassane doesn’t come up again.
Like death, grief, too, is a kind of crash. Suddenly, Martyr erupts into freeze-frames. They capture Hassane’s body stretched out and gently carried by numerous pairs of arms and hands, as his friends bring him home. The moment death enters Hassane’s household, everyday life is irretrievably disrupted, and the film veers into experimentalism. At one point, Hassane’s mother (Carol Abboud) is seamlessly teleported to a black limbo where she and other female mourners grieve in the form of dance. In other hands, such stylistic choices might come off as gauche, but here they are cathartic; the mother’s devastating disbelief is violently exorcised.
In Martyr, life and death are linked through such gestures. Moreover, while the sexual orientation of the men is unclear, there is a homoeroticism in their touch that nurtures Hassane from his adulthood to his sudden death. Grief can also be sensuous; that the same hands which have sunned with Hassane on the beach are now washing him for his final rites is pure cinematic poetry.
• Martyr is released on 12 March on Curzon Home Cinema.