THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN (2021)
Yahya Mahayni, Monica Bellucci, Koen De Bouw, Marc De Panda, Saad Lostan, Dea Liane
Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania
After 27 submissions, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” by writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania (“Beauty and the Dogs”) becomes the first film from Tunisia to become nominated for an Oscar in the Best International Feature category. Yahya Mahayni plays a Syrian refugee named Sam Ali who becomes a living piece of art after agreeing to let acclaimed Belgian artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) use his back as a canvas. Human rights and immigration are central themes in the satire based on a true story as life once again imitates art.
In 2007, Swiss tattoo parlor owner Tim Steiner allowed his back to become a canvas for Belgian artist Wim Delvoye who tattooed the image of The Madonna, along with roses and a skull for a work of art he named “Tim.” German collector Rik Reinking bought the skin art for 150,000 Euros. Steiner got a third of the cash and agreed to the terms of the sale — at the owner’s request he must sit in museums and galleries on display at least three times per year — plus, when Steiner dies, the skin on his back with the tattoo will be removed and become a permanent part of Reinking’s collection.
Inspired by Delvoye’s art after visiting the Louvre and witnessing Steiner on display, Ben Hania crafts a fascinating story about a refugee and the lengths he’s willing to go in the name of love. “The Man Who Sold His Skin” mirrors Steiner’s journey but with a fictional twist that incorporates a love story amidst central themes of immigration and human trafficking.
The story begins aboard a crowded passenger train where Sam professes his love for Abeer (Dea Liane) after he becomes frustrated by the fact that he can’t even put his arms around her without worrying that someone may know Abeer’s family. Public displays of affection are frowned upon in many Middle East regions.
Sam becomes overrun with emotion and stands up to declare his love for Abeer and his intention to marry her. He exclaims “It’s a revolution, we want freedom” as passengers whip out their cellphones to capture the emotional outburst before breaking out in song and dance. That statement, however, lands Sam in hot water — thanks to the 2011 uprising in progress — but fortunately, the government official interrogating him is a relative who looks the other way so Sam can escape custody.
Now a fugitive, Sam flees Syria for Lebanon leaving Abeer behind. As a refugee, he works in a chicken factory by day and scours art galleries by night to steal food off the buffet during the openings of new exhibits. He’s busted by calm and assertive art dealer Soraya (Monica Bellucci) whose boss, acclaimed international artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) invites Sam to have a drink. Sam explains his dilemma, which includes Abeer’s recent arranged marriage to diplomat Ziad (Saad Lostan), and his incapability to travel, “I need to go rescue her from a monster, but I don’t have a horse” to which Jeffrey responds, “I can offer you a flying carpet to travel freely.” The patronizing remark holds merit as Jeffrey convinces Sam to become his latest piece of art which gives Sam the ability to travel freely and visit Abeer.
Like Tim Steiner’s real-life journey, Sam gets a massive tattoo that covers his back but in Ben Hania’s fictionalized account, The Madonna is replaced by a Schengen visa with a valid serial number giving Sam the freedom to travel unrestrictedly, but at what price?
It’s a Faustian pact, Sam’s back substituted for his soul, that stipulates Jeffrey as the owner of the artwork — the skin on Sam’s back — which can be sold at auction and change ownership at any given time. Sam must also go on display, sitting for hours while viewed by the public, at Jeffrey’s bidding. Is Sam really free? Human trafficking is examined as Sam becomes the focus of protesters. He eventually reconnects with Abeer, but she is married, not in love but committed to her diplomatic husband.
Yahya Mahayni’s natural performance is mesmerizing as is the film’s subject matter. Bellucci is fun to watch as the cold, calculated art dealer, while beautiful newcomer Dea Liane shows plenty of promise with an alluring debut. I look forward to seeing her as the female lead in the future.
Ben Hania’s choice to take a true story and craft it into a fictionalized version pays off. A documentary would have been engaging, but the writer-director’s visualized love story imbued with crucial and weighty themes is fascinating to watch. The performances are first-rate as is the cinematography by Christopher Aoun whose widescreen lens captures breathtaking visuals while bringing beauty to the film’s repulsive moments.
Now showing via Virtual Cinema benefitting The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. To rent the film follow this link https://bit.ly/3x8uggM