For my money, the cleverest movie plot of 2020 belongs to Tunisia’s submission for inclusion in The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ “best international feature” contest at the upcoming Oscars.
“The Man Who Sold His Skin” is political and playful, romantic and ironic. It’s about the Syrian Civil War, art and art collecting, human rights and the life of a work of art. And it’s a provocative and darkly amusing delight.
A famous artist contracts a Syrian refugee to let him create a work of art on his back. That artwork –a tattoo of a Schengen Visa, detailed down to the serial numbers. That’s what refugees coming to Europe crave and absolutely must have to relocate there, escaping civil wars, drought, poverty and oppression.
A human being becomes a sitting, seething embodiment of a global crisis and a cause celebre amongst the artsy cognoscenti. How’s that for a “clever hook?”
Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) only wanted to be “free” to love Abeer (Dea Liane). She’s from a higher social class, and she hasn’t told her mother about this classmate she’s fallen for. But that doesn’t stop Abeer from declaring her love on a Damascus commuter train.
It’s just that this admission sends lovestruck Sam into ecstasy, announcing his love to everybody on board, dancing and singing to the claps of their fellow passengers. Damned if the sullen old man taping this on his cell phone didn’t rat them out to the authorities. Sam’s arrested, shirtless and facing interrogation when miracle of miracles, the interrogator turns out to be related.
“Run away,” the government goon hisses between threats.
Sam does, all the way to Beirut. Abeer? She’s married off to a member of the Assad autocracy, an official with the consulate in Brussels.
What can save Sam from his despair, his life of menial labor inspecting freshly-hatched chicks? He finds an answer when he and a pal crash an art opening. He likes art, and he likes cadging free food more. But when the manager (Monica Bellucci) running the opening catches him and confronts him with kindness, he turns surly. That gets the attention of her client, Belgian-American artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw).
The faintly-flamboyant Jeffrey LOVES surly, and he is inspired by this angry refugee.
“I want your back,” he purrs. And as he’s contracted to do a show in Brussels, lovesick Sam sells it to him — for a piece of the action.
Writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania (“Beauty and the Dogs”) takes a real-life incident involving a tattooist and art subject “contract” and turns it into this send-up of the poseur-packed art world, the fluid nature of what we call art these days, a humanitarian crisis and the professional protesting classes who “defend” the rights of the displaced.
But Sam doesn’t want to be “defended.” He’s being well-compensated and is living in a five star hotel. He wears a silk robe to work each day like a prize-fighter, removing it to settle into a darkened museum grotto of light and mirrors.
The film never crosses into out-and-out farce, even as it lightly cuts every group Ben Hania holds up for skewering. She never lets us forget that this is, at heart, a love story, filled with longing and growing bitterness. That gives “Sold His Skin” its gravitas.
The tragedy of the last decade in Syria is kept in the background for the most part, as increasingly rebellious Sam struggles to maintain his humanity through the life cycle of a “hot” work of art. There’s celebrity and its downside, the inevitable “controversy” and blowback, sales and auctions, each more humiliating than the last.
And hell and damnation, his woman’s gone and married a thug with an Assad office job.
As dark as Ben Hania lets things turn — this is, after all, a form of slavery, “human trafficking” and “prostitution” — she’s never lets her film sit and curdle.
No, there’s always a new crisis when the portrait develops a pimple, another quip from the provocateur who designed the art, Jeffrey.
“I’m not cynical. The WORLD is!”
In his feature film debut, Mahayni gives dignity, pettiness and raging frustration to Sam. Liane is the very picture of winsome unattainable desire. De Bouw is an oddly-accented hoot, and Bellucci classes-up everything and everyone around her, as usual.
And when it’s all over, the viewer gets to wrestle with everything everyone here does — the plight of Syria, the nature of art, “exploitation” and the nature of “freedom.”
Not bad for the first Tunisian film much of the world will have ever had the chance to see.
MPA Rating: Unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Monica Bellucci, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw
Credits: Scripted and directed by Kaouther Ben Hania. A BAC/Tanit Films release.
Running time: 1:43