Editor’s note: This Martyr review is entirely spoiler-free.
Seasoned film viewers have come to expect certain storylines from gay films: bittersweet coming of age romances; comic eye-candy with drag queens sprinkled in; and tragic death via HIV or gaybashing. But Mazen Khaled’s Martyr, a feature-length film which just had its North American Premiere during the 2018 SXSW Festival and Conferences, avoids all these tired tropes and delivers something startlingly new and unlike any other gay drama you’ve ever seen.
Shot in Beirut and Italy with Arabic dialogue, Martyr follows the intimate friendship between Hassane three close male companions who regularly swim at a popular Mediterranean diving spot. When death strikes one of them, the three others must literally grapple with their friend’s passing, carrying the body back to the man’s family and ritually washing it before his funeral.
Throughout the film, the camera looks long and closely at naked men: soaping up and masturbating in the shower, floating gracefully in the ocean, lovingly carried and sensually washed after death.
But despite the camera’s unflinchingly homoerotic gaze, the film itself features no overt gays onscreen. Through tight dialogue that feels both intensely personal and yet suggestively ambiguous, it’s unclear whether Hassane or any of his friends are gay at all or just experiencing a sort of intimate physical comfort between men that seems at odds with the toxic masculinity and softcore porn we normally see on the silver screen.
Make no mistake, Martyr is a gay film. The director is gay, it’s an official part of SXSW’s LGBTQ film selections and it was even up for a Queer Lion Award at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival.
Its non-explicit homoeroticism isn’t due to timidity or fear of censorship on the director’s part either. Though homosexuality is criminalized as “against nature” in Lebanese law and some of its police still conduct forced anal exams of suspected homosexuals, Beirut shows gay films like Moonlight in its movie theaters and has numerous gay couples living openly in its metropolis.
But by not explicitly labeling his characters as gay, Khaled invites the audience to make what they will of the men’s relationships while exploring broader themes of male intimacy and friendships following a crisis, themes we almost never see covered in slow, nuanced and non-sensationalized ways.
Not everything from this foreign film translates clearly for Western audiences: The dead character is repeatedly referred to as a martyr, which in a Shariah legal context means “someone who dies a painful or unjust death,” and the film depicts the very real, tense social divisions that exist between Beirut’s working class men and unemployed men who willingly fight in local leaders’ street skirmishes.
But even if you’re unable to dive deep into Martyr‘s cultural references, it’s still a refreshing, if somewhat somber swim, a rare film that examines what happens after a companion dies instead of concluding with the death itself.