The Man Who Sold His Skin, written and directed by Tunisian Kaouther Ben Hania, was one of the major successes at the 77th Venice Film Festival, winning two prizes in the Horizions/Orizzonti section: Yahya Mahayni received the Best Actor Award, and the film also got the Edipo Re Award. The film now races for the Academy Awards in the category Best International Feature Film.
The story chronicles the physical and existential journey of the Syrian refugee, Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), from Beirut to Brussels, by becoming a canvas for famous tattoo artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw). Sam agrees to having a visa tattooed on his back and become an exhibit on a tour around the globe. Besides wanting to escape the war, what drives him is the possibility of traveling to Europe to join Abeer (Dea Liane), the love of his life. However, as collectors become interested in the work of art on his back, he will have to come to terms with the way this decision has further restricted his thirst for freedom.
As fictional as the cinematic narrative may sound, director Kaouther Ben Hania grasped inspiration from the real-life story of Tim Steiner, who became the human canvas for Belgian artist Wim Delvoye in 2007. In that case, the design portrayed a praying Virgin Mary with a rosary amid beams of light, surrounded by soaring birds, and red and blue roses. In The Man Who Sold His Skin the tattoo on Sam’s back perfectly replicates a Schengen visa.
In the fashion of the Swedish The Square, directed by Ruben Östlund, that playfully skewered the art world, or the American Velvet Buzzsaw by Dan Gilroy, that mocked the fatuousness and callousness of those working in this field; Benia Hania’s latest work makes a piquant parody that blends with a powerful, social commentary about human degradation. She unites an irreverent satire of the art world with a reflection on the Syrian crisis, as well as making a philosophical analysis about the reduction of man into a product.
This film marks Ben Hania’s most international feature to this day, after the Tunisia-set The Challat Of Tunis, which was acclaimed in the festival circuit in 2013, and Beauty And The Dogs, which premiered in Un Certain Regard in 2017. The Man Who Sold His Skin, fuses multiple cinematic genres in one movie: dramedy, tragedy, black comedy, fictional-exposé. Although the protagonist is a refugee — the film explores the political crisis in Syria —the story is a universal one, as the director claimed: “The Man Who Sold His Skin is an allegory about one’s personal freedom in an inegalitarian system tackling broader meaning about our real-world issues.”
Sam’s journey to hell occurs serendipitously as he happens to be at an art opening, where he goes as a freeloader party crasher to get some food, and he catches the attention of the secretary of an artist, Soraya Waldy (Monica Bellucci). She is intrigued and introduces him to the Mephistophelian renown Jeffrey Godefroi, who offers him the deal that will change his life. His surname also gives away his glacial and godlike nature in the story. The fiendish offer is blatant as Sam asks Jeffrey “Do you want my soul?” and the answer he receives is: “I want your back.” We shall see that once the Faustian pact is sealed, the consequences will be more profound than some simple ink injected in the skin, as later on one of the collectors declares: “This work of art bears the signature of the devil.”
The talented cast brings to life this paradoxical narrative with utmost authenticity and credibility, unveiling the contradictions of human nature, ready to undertake the most absurd actions to pursue a coveted goal, and being just as fickle in regretting that choice. On a more romantic note, we also see how a man is ready to sell himself, even more than for survival, for love. All of these features are embodied by Yahya Mahayni in a genuinely prismatic way. Just as intriguing is Koen De Bouw in bringing to life the seductively manipulative artist. As for Monica Bellucci, playing Soraya, she brings her glamour and charm to the film, providing an international touch. Even thought her role is functional, her elegance contributes to the portrayal of the jet set surrounding the art world, and her platinum blonde hair depicts her almost as a hyper-realistic manga character.
The cynical world of contemporary art is just a mirror for today’s entire society, where the individual is commodified and the body has become the social window. As the new professions of influencers, bloggers and YouTubers have shown, the human physique is now part of the consumers culture. Personal branding offers promises of increased success in the business world. This form of “self-packaging” leads to a success that is not determined by individuals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather, by how effectively they are branded. It is more about self-promotion rather than true self-expression. In the case of Kaouther Ben Hania’s Sam, he doesn’t have the choice to self-invent himself, he is branded and marketed by others. But the depersonalised realm that The Man Who Sold His Skin traverses, potently displays how man’s condition in today’s world is reduced to an insurance problem, since the individual has become a simple commodity.
Final Grade: A+