By Wesley Morris
Dec. 13, 2018
“Martyr” is one of those vague social tragedies that you wind up halfway believing, in part because the director’s convinced you, and also because the people starring in it seem existentially worn out — by life, sure, and maybe by all that vagueness.
They’re playing bored young men withering in what should be the prime of their lives, and even though they don’t have a lot to act, they capture the numbness, grief and rage that come out of strife. They do what they can, with feeling. And the movie deepens into something haunted.
It’s set in a poor section of Beirut and revolves around Hassane (Hamza Mekdad), who’s sleeping on a mattress on his parents’ living room floor after having quit possibly yet another job. (He didn’t like the way he was being treated.) Instead of looking for work, though, he hits the craggy seashore with three of his buddies.
A few conversations about the indignities of their professional and romantic prospects eventually inspires Hassane to climb up to a busy walkway and, before his buddies and a cluster of onlookers, take a fatal dive into this rocky bit of the Mediterranean. It makes more sense as an act of symbolism than logic. How, for instance, is drowning the cause of death and not something ghastlier like a traumatic brain injury? But we met Hassane dreaming of being suspended in water. (He longed to take lengthier showers, too.) That leap feels as much like following destiny as giving up.
Plus, drowning can be poetic, and the poetry here gets turned up to 10. The writer and director, Mazen Khaled, is painterly with his imagery — freezing the frame to show men holding their dead friend, first among the rocks, then at his parents’ apartment.
“Martyr” runs only 84 minutes, but Khaled tries a little of everything — family drama, movie musical, choreography, with some kind of turf-war rivalry mixed in. The characters are sketches filled in by good acting. Khaled’s not telling a story about them so much as tapping, obliquely, into an oppressive national mood and purportedly liberating Hassane from it.
This means an erosion of the line between this world and some alternative realm, which the movie represents as a black room where the camera studies Hassane’s nude body for minutes at a time and a troupe of bereft mourners, led by his mother (Carol Abboud, overwrought and fantastic), do a violent dance in unison.
You do get a portrait of isolation, and also the sense of a connection that’s more intense than plain-old camaraderie. Hassane and his friends had a tight bond that the movie allows you to receive as, at least, homoerotic. (They seem married to each other.) The camera lingers on a friend’s hands as he strokes Hassane’s motorbike before they head to the sea. This same friend, played by Moustafa Fahs, gives his dead body a metaphorical washing then a figurative, modern-dance-y cleansing in that black, alternative space.
Watching it brings to mind everything from the assorted fraternities you find in all kinds of Italian movies to the queer experimentalism of Derek Jarman and the more intense sensuality of Khaled’s countrywoman Nadine Labaki, namely her musical “Where Do We Go from Here.” “Martyr” isn’t as good, rousing or provocative as any of that. And yet it’s not asensual.
The more time Khaled’s camera takes to wend its way around Hassane’s suspended body, the more its caresses seem to match all the embracing and caressing Hassane’s friend does. And the more time the movie devotes to the parts of this one man’s body the more that care seems to stand in for a country’s neglected whole.