Thursday 11 March 2021

Breaking the surface: "Martyr"

As its title hints, the Lebanese indie Martyr is hewing to a radicalisation narrative of sorts - following a path towards extreme activity, a plunge into the abyss - but it's been abstracted, complicated and made newly compelling by writer-director Mazen Khaled's sophisticated visual sense. The film opens with a wordless prologue that finds protagonist Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) suspended in water, immediately recalling the hapless victims in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin and the lonely paddler in Lynne Ramsay's short Swimmer. This, it transpires, is either the dream, suffocation nightmare or pre-emptive vision of a twentysomething who generally feels frustrated and walled-in: stuck at home with his parents, no immediate career prospects, and a hardline father who won't even let his boy jerk off in peace. Khaled tails Hassane's moped through the narrow streets of Beirut, noting in passing the flyers and murals commemorating the city's fallen that serve almost as recruitment ads; when he pulls back, he spies an entire generation of young men with nothing much to do and nowhere urgent to go. Hassane and friends spend their days hanging out on the city's rocky coastal fringes, sunbathing, picking over what their lives might have been, expressing backhanded admiration for their militantly inclined contemporaries ("at least they have conviction") and generally waiting to be called, one way or another.

For some while, Khaled's default mode is realism, but as he proceeds, he accumulates bold flourishes that suggest what happens one particular day on this seafront - the taking of that fateful plunge - can be interpreted multiple ways, and that the action is as much symbolic as literal (and littoral). So we get tableaux of shirtless torsos, a soundtrack of whispers and ululations, a central setpiece that devotes a quarter of an hour to achieve an action - the elevation of a body - that a more straightforwardly realist work would describe in a few minutes tops, and cutaways to a darkened studio for bouts of contemporary dance that offer a commentary on the dramatic material. This is Khaled's second feature, and he's already highly precise about his blocking and framing, where he sets these bodies down and how he approaches them; given how noisy this world and its movies have become, it's doubly striking to encounter a filmmaker who appears so at ease with silence (and the wordlessness written into this project from the off). That silence, which Khaled weaponises most effectively, is comparable to the silence one hears in the wake of an explosion, or upon diving into water from a height - it's the silence between worlds, and it's been factored into Martyr to encourage us to keep ducking beneath the surface of this narrative. The split-layer approach doesn't always pay off - some of the supporting performances are too blunt to function on two levels simultaneously - but it's novel to witness a radicalisation narrative that doesn't end in a big bang, and that at all turns prefers water to fire and brimstone. Khaled is speaking a strikingly different cinematic language to his peers; that should be enough to mark him as promising indeed.

Martyr will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and Prime Video from tomorrow.

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