Review: Mazen Khaled’s Lebanese Drama ‘Martyr’

In 2017, Lebanese filmmaker Mazen Khaled wrote and directed Martyr – the project now receives UK distribution from Peccadillo Pictures leading to its upcoming Curzon release on 12th March 2021 and DVD and wider digital release on 22nd of March 2021. Inspired by the diving that takes place on the rocky Beirut coastline, Martyr examines the grieving process of a family jarred by a tragic accident which extinguishes youthful beauty, friendships, and potential.

Martyr follows Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) whose life has become stuck in a rut and stopped making sense. With a similarly disenfranchised group of friends Hassane attempts to de-stress at a swimming point on Beirut’s rugged coastline. However a tragic accident triggers a tsunami grief upon Hassane’s friends, family, and loved ones.

Cinematographers Talal Khoury and Rachel Noja capture the meditative and artistic qualities of writer-director Khaled’s screenplay with a picturesque might. From the bright naturalistic landscapes of ocean and coastline directly juxtaposing the cramped and darkened interiors of Hassane’s home life, Martyr has a real visual clout. Similarly as the feature delves into more obscure and challenging symbolism, Khoury and Noja still ensure that this remains a visually gripping piece – including esoteric scenes of Hassane’s friends visiting in a darkened room (akin to a theatre space) – Martyr packs an ambitious aura of mystery and intrigue.

Khaled packs his film with a bold symbolism and numerous homoerotic overtones capturing every element of the physicality of the handsome Lebanese cast. There are numerous drifting scenes of our protagonist underwater – submerged and embracing the calm, serene escape that the underwater landscape provides from his marginalized, challenging existence. Even lingering shots of Hassane in the shower at the start showcases Khaled’s eye for male physicality – this primarily capturing Hassane’s youth in its prime – something that layers Martyr with an added element of tragedy.

Almost split into three clear sections: the opening exploring Hassane’s morose state of mind, the middle examining the ritualistic process of retrieving his dead body from the Beirut waters, and the third examining the grieving procedures experienced by his friends and family. Throughout these Khaled captures a quiet intensity paired with an artistic visual flair. Whilst these visuals grab us, we do not get a huge insight into Hassane’s struggles and the specifics as to why he and his friends feel marginalised – similarly, whilst we see the Islamic mourning process, we do not get a particularly strong insight into the specific characters experiencing the grief.

A friend of Hassane notes: “When I was looking at him I was already missing him” capturing a sense of losing someone before their physical death and this is an intriguing concept – yet we do not have a strong enough sense of the character of Hassane to fully connect with the tragedy at the core of Martyr. The bold aesthetics ensure that Martyr is an artistically striking eighty minutes, yet the emotional core feels somewhat lacking due to the shallow characterisation.