The opening moments of Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin set a dark atmosphere, but the proceeding film strikes a much lighter tone than expected and ends up going into deep issues about refugees, obligation, ownership and art.
Yahya Mahayni stars as Sam Ali, a Syrian man who declares his love on a train for his girlfriend Abeer (Dea Liane). Sam also mentions a revolution during his declaration and is arrested. After being allowed to escape by his cousin, he visits Abeer just long enough to see the man she is being married off to before he is snuck into Lebanon as a refugee.
Months later, Abeer is settled in Brussels and Sam does remedial work at a hatchery. A fortuitous meeting with enigmatic artist Jeffery Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) gives Sam an opportunity to earn a visa, as long as he gets the visa tattooed on his back. Sam agrees and receives the tattoo. This leads him to Brussels as a living piece of art.
Sam attempts to deal with his new-found fame while attempting to reconnect with Abeer. This runs him afoul of both Abeer’s husband and Soraya (Monica Bellucci), Jeffery’s right-hand woman. All the while, Syrian refugee groups want to use Sam as their symbol of oppression and manipulation.
The film maintains a dark and sinister tone without anything evil happening. The idea of a living work of art assumes human trafficking and slavery, but Sam never seems to mind much about being in this situation. Sam also shows little interest in the idea of lending a hand to the refugee crisis in his home country. His relative life of luxury suits him, but he is decidedly alone. Only when Abeer’s husband needs help does she seek him out. He sniffs out the ruse and sends her on her way.
This is all on the shoulders and literal back of Mahayni. Sam is beaten down by his circumstances and Mahayni wears that beating on his face. While his hardened body gets the showcase throughout the film (he is rarely not shirtless), his eyes show his weariness. Sam is kind, but not charming. He is pleasant, but not inviting. Jeffery needed an empty vessel to be a human work of art and Sam provides the emptiness. Mahayni is an actor to watch in the coming years.
Liane serves as a romantic ideal. Her piercing eyes stare off in the distance, torn between the man she is obligated to and the man she loves. Her part doesn’t allow her to stretch beyond a stock love interest. De Bouw’s Jeffery is a complete mystery, fluctuating between demanding artist to understanding guide from scene to scene. He captivates whenever he appears, but his scenes are few and far between. Bellucci gets little to do besides espouse disappointment in Sam.
The film tacks on a silly ending, but the overall experience was one that could have gone much deeper or could have gone much lighter. The tonal clashing doesn’t serve the film, but The Man Who Sold His Skin is still worth seeking out for Mahayni’s performance alone. This feels like a film that could get an overly important American remake that would only enhance this version.