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Film review: Martyr

26 March 2021

Water is peril, passion, and cleansing here, says Stephen Brown

Tragedy strikes in Martyr, set in Beirut

Tragedy strikes in Martyr, set in Beirut

MARTYR (advisory classification 18) begins with images of the naked teenage Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) floating (drowning?) in a dreamlike fashion. When he awakes, his parents cajole him into seeking employment. We sense that job prospects are hopeless. Instead, he drives his scooter through Beirut’s dark and narrow streets, past walls covered with pictures of martyrs.

What qualifies anyone as a martyr is the primary question posed by the director, Mazen Khaled. The Corniche is a sanctuary for young people. They swim and frolic in the Mediterranean. In between times, they talk about the purpose of life. Their speech, peppered with Islamic phrases, places their concerns within the mercy of God. They dare one another to do something dangerous. Lads in the past have died, diving into the rocky shoreline. For the director, the true martyrs of today are those pushed by society to its limits, the literal edge being the balustrade adjoining the waterfront.

For these marginalised people, there is little else than plunging into the deep blue sea. Terence Rattigan saw his play of that title as a metaphor for “the illogicality of passion”. Something similar occurs in Martyr, in which passion implies pain. Here, the sea both embraces and threatens to overwhelm the characters.

Given their hard existence, they surrender themselves to the sensual pleasures of immersion. An alternative is being trapped into believing that there is hope of something more meaningful. Their risky high dives are leaps of faith. Khaled’s camera pays attention to the youngsters’ bare backs, suggesting a turning away from a society that ignores them and a jumping into the only freedom that they know.

Tragedy eventually strikes. These swimmers immediately claim the victim as a martyr. Through a series of stills, much of the film is devoted to the aftermath of the drowning, and to the returning of the son’s body to his parents. The water motif persists. On the one hand, we have encountered the vastness of the sea, in what the French writer and mystic Romain Rolland called the oceanic feeling, one that produces an unbounded sensation of eternity. On the other, we witness the ghusl: the ritual washing and shrouding preceding Muslim burial. The tenderness and care at the time of death contrast sharply with the lack of it in life. The end credits plead: “May all beings have happiness and causes of happiness.”

The director’s concentration on the body puts it into a spiritual context. Whether it is buoyed up by the sea or lovingly cared for by mourners, we, the viewers, gain understanding. The thing that uniquely identifies us — our body — speaks of who we are and our eternal destiny. The original Greek meaning of “martyr” was bearing witness, even to the extent of suffering. Just as much as their dead friend’s, the lives of those who are left behind testify to a willingness to stay open to God-given possibilities even when these are denied.

On digital platforms and DVD

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