Indeed, under this alarming title is an utterly accessible (if not somewhat intriguing) film, about a passionate and resourceful Syrian refugee who does everything possible to navigate his dire circumstances to finally find the love of his life. Her sacrifice involves loaning her bare back as a canvas for an intricate tattoo by an internationally renowned but controversial artist, just to gain freedom of movement across the world as a traveling human artwork. While this all sounds like an unlikely scenario, Ben Hania is said to have drawn inspiration from an actual contract from the late 2000s between Belgian artist Wim Delvoye and his stretcher Tim Steiner. After 40 hours of tattooing, Delvoye created an elaborate work of art on Steiner, which he then sold to a German art collector for an indescribable sum; a pact that meant that upon his death, Steiner’s back would eventually be scratched and framed.
In “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” the spontaneous Sam Ali (a delicious Yahya Mahayni) is exactly the kind of person who would say yes to a transaction like this. Madly in love with upper-class Abeer (Dea Liane) with crystal blue eyes, Ali suddenly separates from her due to a terrible political misunderstanding and discovers that he must flee in a hurry to Beirut. There, he accidentally bumps into the world famous artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) at a party where he crashed. Unable to accept that the obedient Abeer was married to a wealthy man under pressure from his family, he impulsively accepts Godefroi’s condescending offer and gets inked with the print of a huge Schengen visa on his back, traveling from gallery to gallery with Godefroi and the sharp-tongued merchant Soraya Waldy (Monica Bellucci, infusing the film with a major attraction for the stars) in the wake.
The film’s ideological values are so clearly stated that it’s hard to find “The Man Who Sold His Skin” politically exciting or revealing. In fact, Sam Ali’s crisis machinations often seem oversimplified in terms of observations on identity and class. On the surface, Ben Hania tries to point out that Ali sells part of his humanity and displays the permanent political graffiti on his body to privileged audiences out of desperation, in exchange for a right he should already have as a being. human. But in trying to sensitively dissect the exploitative nature of the outrageous arrangement Ali accepts, Ben Hania’s film comes dangerously close to being another form of exploitation itself; one who uses a refugee spell for a clever but superficial story with a questionable twist at best. Ben Hania’s portrayal of the contemporary art scene is also flawed, which was done so brilliantly and manifold in Ruben Östlund’s “The Square”. Here, the fame and talents of the central artist are never more credible, even as the filmmaker works overtime to telegraph his legitimacy. But all his efforts somehow lead to the opposite.