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Review: Meditative Lebanese drama 'Martyr' bathes in the grace of grief and loss

Review: Meditative Lebanese drama 'Martyr' bathes in the grace of grief and loss
Moustafa Fahs, left, and Hadi Bou Ayash carry Hamza Mekdad in the movie "Martyr." (Talal Khoury/ Breaking Glass Pictures)

The Lebanese film “Martyr” exists in its own meditative world, one in which a young Arabic man’s mysterious drowning feels simultaneously tragic, ordained and emblematic. Mazen Khaled’s film starts in a sleepy abstract, the camera caressing the nude, statutory figure of Hassane (Hamza Mekdad), sometimes seen in a murky, dreamlike underwater state, before introducing us to his waking life in modern-day Beirut.

Over the course of a day, he bickers with his parents about employment struggles, complains to close male friends about feeling marginalized and misunderstood, and takes in a sun-kissed beach day at a rocky shore that will host (spur?) his fate.

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The second half of “Martyr” focuses on the ritualized handling of Hassane’s body, transporting him from the chaos at the shore to his parents’ home, before finally washing him for burial. Khaled breaks up the fragmented, verité realism of a solemn occasion with choreographed inserts set on a dark, spotlit stage, as if to stress something simultaneously beautiful and bleak about youth cut short.

Boldly homoerotic in its water-and-body-conscious imagery, “Martyr” is more of a formal, physical performance about grief and loss than a deep-dive into the inner lives of its handful of stricken characters. It leaves one with the sense that Khaled wishes to reclaim a headline-tainted religious status from the acts of violent men and bestow that mournful grace to people in an everyday struggle with sensitivity and hopelessness.

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‘Martyr’

In Arabic with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 30, Laemmle Glendale

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