An Immigrant Becomes A Human Canvas In This Sly Film About Art And Freedom

Apr 1, 2021

If any story has been inescapable this century, it's surely immigration. The subject has spawned so many newscasts, books, movies and TV shows that it takes real imagination to find an invigorating angle on such a well-worn and difficult theme.

That's why I was surprised and delighted by The Man Who Sold His Skin, a funny, touching and pointed film that's been nominated for the Oscar for Best International Feature. Made by the Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania, it weaves together satire and humane political awareness to create an original fable about art, privilege, freedom and identity.

The winning newcomer Yahya Mahayni stars as Sam Ali, a handsome young Syrian madly in love with his girlfriend, Abeer (Dea Liane). But when Sam's thrown into prison by the Assad regime for a trifle, he's forced to escape to Lebanon. He's burning to get to Belgium where Abeer has moved with the Syrian diplomat she's been married off to, but he can't get a visa.

Sam's situation seems hopeless until he sneaks into an opening at a Beirut gallery hoping to sponge free food. Once there, he's caught by a glamorous art-dealer who introduces him to Jeffrey Godefroi, an internationally renowned artist played by Belgian star Koen De Bouw. Jeffrey specializes in glib work that sells for millions and seems to embody Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Over drinks, Jeffrey proposes a deal that will let Sam get to Abeer. Using Sam's back as his canvas, Jeffrey creates a large tattoo depicting the Schengen Visa, the document that allows free movement between European countries. In exchange, he gives Sam a cut of the profits and — because Sam is now a pricey work of art — gets him into Belgium. There Sam spends his time being displayed in a museum and looking for Abeer. He finally appears to be free.

Of course, when someone says he's the devil and offers you a contract, the word "Faustian" does come to mind. Even as Jeffrey delivers everything he promised, Sam's supposed freedom finds him being pinballed in crazy directions. Among the forces pulling him are Abeer's belligerent husband, bossy museum directors, vulgarian art collectors, internet trolls, Syrian refugee groups who want to use him as a symbol, and his mother back in the war-ravaged city of Raqqa, whose travails will leave him gutted and ashamed.

While The Man Who Sold His Skin is a good film, it's not flawless: The motivating love story is a bit conventional, the plotting a shade too pat. Yet the movie is admirable in its slyness and tact. Ben Hania has a light touch. She leaves us to notice the visual similarities that link Sam's time in prison and the gallery world. Neatly evading the commonplaces about mistreated immigrants, she wittily gives us a refugee who feels himself trapped in his life of 5-star hotels and room service caviar.

Now, in real life, the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye actually did tattoo a man named Tim Steiner, turning him into a work of art. In Ben Hania's hands, that gimmicky conceptual idea takes on a richer meaning. It's not simply that Sam becomes a commodity, but that by becoming a commodity, he has more rights. As an asylum seeker, he can't get into Europe, but as a piece of artistic merchandise he can. He has more value in the prosperous West as an object than as a man. As such, Sam becomes a metaphor for how immigrants become objects defined by the meanings we impose upon them rather than by the ones they would make for themselves.

In the end, The Man Who Sold His Skin is all about Sam attempting to stop being an object and start being a man who writes his own story rather than having it told for him by a tattoo on his back.

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This is FRESH AIR. The new Tunisian film "The Man Who Sold His Skin" tells the fictional story of a Syrian political refugee who makes an unusual deal with a world-famous artist. Nominated for an Academy Award as the Best International Feature Film, it was written and directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, the first Muslim woman to have a film nominated in that category. Critic-at-large John Powers says the film tackles a difficult subject in a fresh and entertaining way.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If any story has been inescapable this century, it's surely immigration. The subject has spawned so many newscasts, books, movies and TV shows that it takes real imagination to find an invigorating angle on such a well-worn and difficult theme. That's why I was surprised and delighted by "The Man Who Sold His Skin," a funny, touching and pointed film that's one of the Oscar nominees for Best International Feature. It was made by the Tunisian writer and director Kaouther Ben Hania.

Weaving together satire and humane political awareness, she's created an original fable about art, privilege, freedom and identity. The winning newcomer Yahya Mahayni stars as Sam Ali, a handsome young Syrian madly in love with his girlfriend, Abeer. That's Dea Liane. But when Sam's thrown into prison by the Assad regime for a trifle, he's forced to escape to Lebanon. He's burning to get to Belgium, where Abeer has moved with the Syrian diplomat she's been married off to, but he can't get a visa.

His situation seems hopeless until he sneaks into a Beirut gallery opening to sponge free food. When he's caught by a glamorous art dealer - that's Monica Bellucci - she introduces him to Jeffrey Godefroi, an internationally renowned artist played by the Belgian star Koen De Bouw. Specializing in glib work that sells for millions, Jeffrey seems to embody Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic - as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Over drinks, Sam tells Jeffrey why he wants to go to Belgium to see Abeer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN")

YAHYA MAHAYNI: (As Sam Ali) I need to go there to rescue her from a monster. I don't have a horse.

KOEN DE BOUW: (As Jeffrey Godefoi) Well, it's not a horse you need. It's more like a flying carpet. I can offer you one.

MAHAYNI: (As Sam Ali) Offer me what?

DE BOUW: (As Jeffrey Godefoi) The flying carpet to travel freely.

MAHAYNI: (As Sam Ali) What do you think, you're a genie?

DE BOUW: (As Jeffrey Godefoi, laughing) Well, sometimes I think I'm Mephistopheles.

MAHAYNI: (As Sam Ali) You want my soul?

DE BOUW: (As Jeffrey Godefoi) I want your back.

POWERS: Jeffrey isn't kidding. Using Sam's back as his canvas, he creates a large tattoo depicting the Schengen visa, the document that lets 100 countries in the eurozone. In exchange, he gives Sam a cut of the profits, and because Sam is now a pricey work of art, gets him into Belgium. There, Sam spends his time being displayed in a museum and looking for Abeer. He finally appears to be free.

Of course, when someone says he's the devil and offers you a contract, the word Faustian does come to mind. Even as Jeffrey delivers everything he promised, Sam's supposed freedom finds him being pinballed in crazy directions among Abeer's belligerent husband, bossy museum directors, vulgarian art collectors, Internet trolls, Syrian refugee groups who want to use him as a symbol, and his mother back in the war-ravaged city of Raqqa, whose travails will leave him gutted and ashamed.

While "The Man Who Sold His Skin" is a good film, it's not flawless. The motivating love story is a bit conventional, the plotting a shade too packed. Yet the movie is admirable in its slyness and tact. Ben Hania has a light touch. She leaves us to notice the visual similarities that link Sam's time in prison and in the gallery world. Neatly evading the commonplaces about mistreated immigrants, she wittily gives us a refugee who feels himself trapped in a life of five-star hotels and room service caviar.

Now, in real life, the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye actually did tattoo a man named Tim Steiner, turning him into a work of art. In Ben Hania's hands, that gimmicky conceptual idea takes on a richer meaning. It's not simply that Sam becomes a commodity, but that by becoming a commodity, he has more rights. As an asylum-seeker, he can't get into Europe, but as a piece of artistic merchandise, he can. He has more value in the prosperous West as an object than as a man.

As such, Sam becomes a metaphor for how immigrants become objects defined by the meanings we impose upon them, rather than by the ones they would make for themselves. In the end, "The Man Who Sold His Skin" is all about Sam attempting to stop being an object and start being a man who writes his own story, rather than having it told for him by a tattoo on his back.

DAVIES: Critic-at-large John Powers reviewed the Oscar-nominated film "The Man Who Sold His Skin," which will be opening in theaters and available online throughout the month.

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