Producers: Nadim Cheikrouha, Habib Attia, Annabella Nezri, Thanassis Karathanas, Martin Hampel and Andreas Rocksen Director: Kaouther Ben Hania Screenplay: Kaouther Ben Hania Cast: Vahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan, Darina Al Joundi, Jan Dahdouh and Christian Vadim Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Satire about the world of contemporary art blends with the dark reality of the Syrian refugee crisis in this Oscar-nominated film from Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania. Though heavy-handed at times, “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” which uses an actual event very loosely as an inspiration but adds a political element to it, makes some telling points about how human life is turned into a commodity in modern culture.
Vahya Mahayni is a Syrian named Sam Ali, who has accidentally fallen afoul of the government of Bashar al-Assad and suspected of having revolutionary tendencies as a result of an exuberant display following his proposal to Abeer (Dea Liane). Terrified of what might happen to him, with the help of his sister he crosses the border into Lebanon, leaving Abeer behind. After his disappearance she marries Ziad (Saad Lostan), a minor functionary in the government who had refused to help him.
In Beirut, Sam finds little opportunity for work and with his pal, cynical Hazem (Jan Dahdouh) cadges food as best he can while hoping to find a way to get to Brussels, where Abeer has moved with Ziad. Visiting an art show where a table of hors d’oeuvres might be found, he meets internationally famous painter Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) and his manager Soraya Waldy (Monica Bellucci). Godefroi makes him an offer he can’t refuse–a means of escape to Europe. But it comes with catches.
Simply put, Godefroi proposes to tattoo onto Sam’s back a work of art—specifically a Schengen visa, which allows travel throughout Europe. His status as a valuable artwork gives Sam the ability to get to Brussels, but also requires him to serve as an exhibit in museums, and allows him to be auctioned off to collectors. (In the actual case, this meant that upon his death the “canvas” that was the man’s back would go to the purchaser.)
Sam’s problems are hardly over, since Ziad discovers that he’s been contacting Abeer and responds with fury. He also has to submit to an operation when a pimple appears on his back, requiring treatment to preserve his value. As his hopes turn to dust and the different lack of freedom he now suffers from becomes increasingly apparent, Sam is forced to consider desperate measures.
“The Man Who Sold His Skin” appears to be headed for a very downbeat conclusion, and to reach something other than that Ben Hania adds twists that not only strain credulity but use horrific realities in a way some viewers may well find tasteless. And while the film is technically proficient despite limited resources–Christopher Aoun’s cinematography and Sophie Abdelkefi’s production design are excellent, and though Marie-Helene Dozo’s editing is not ideally smooth, Annie Bouhafa’s score mixes a variety of styles effectively—the performances are mixed. Mahayni sometimes exhibits too little restraint and De Bouw too much, while Liane is pretty much wasted. Lostan exaggerates the villainy, and Bellucci’s parody of the hoity-toity art maven is so over-the-top that it seems to have stepped out of a different sort of satire—one painted with a much broader brush.
But while one can point out plenty of blemishes in the Ben Hania’s picture, it does make some acute points about the inhumanity of modern merchandizing.