Review: The indelibility of tattoo designs doesn’t transfer to ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’


An amazing true story mixing art and human rights has inspired a regrettably ham-fisted movie in “The Guy Who Sold His Pores and skin, ” Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania’s lush but wildly uneven yarn (and Oscar nominee for global feature) about the thorny convergence of art world freedom and real-world woes.

In the late 2000s, a Swiss man decided to let Belgian artist Wim Delvoye turn his back to a tattooed work (titled after him, “Tim”), a contract that involved traveling to get scheduled gallery appearances along with a percentage when it sold (and it did). Ben Hania’s topical reworking of this unusual and questionable bargain is to make the living canvas somebody truly in need — and who is more desperate these days for the stamp of freedom, and maybe a specific notable prestige, than a refugee?

We meet Syrian man Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) in Arab Spring 2011 when, in an act of impulsive romance, he proposes to his blushing, well-to-do girlfriend, Abeer (Dea Liane), on a train with a giddy speech to passengers that mentions freedom and revolution. When this outburst gets him arrested and threatened with prison time, that he escapes and high-tails it to Lebanon. Being cash-poor, Sam haunts Beirut art gallery openings for the free food while bemoaning maybe not being able to get to Brussels, where Abeer has moved (and moved on) with her new husband, a stuffy Syrian diplomat named Ziad (Saad Lostan).


At one of the galleries he crashes, where he’s exposed by way of a coolly condescending art dealer named Soraya ( Monica Bellucci , bizarrely letting a wig wear her ), Sam’s plight grabs the attention of controversial Belgian artist Jeffrey Godefroi ( Koen de Bouw ). A pontificating provocateur, he offers to give the Syrian the visa he so badly wants — but in ink on his back as an artwork owned by Jeffrey, to be displayed at his bidding, wherever he wants. (In a pointed little bit of cultural patronization, Jeffrey sells the idea to this powerless Middle Eastern man as his long-awaited “flying carpet. ”) With screenplay speed, Sam agrees, and his tattooed visa is haughtily presented to the public by Jeffrey as a groundbreaking piece that damns the commodification of humans in an unjust world.

Sam becomes both an unlikely art star and a human rights flashpoint, but what does this do to the man himself? That’s the naggingly unformed center of Ben Hania’s scenario, preventing any of her points about freedom, commerce and creativity from ever landing as satire, fable, tragedy or even issue-driven screed. Mostly, the points are told us in awkwardly exclamatory dialogue through over-the-top classes, starting with Jeffrey and Soraya and continuing with other benefits world stereotypes (the unpleasant collector, the snooty public director), rarely in situations in which feel alive comically as well as dramatically.

Of which doesn’t help that Mahayni’s performance is thin, Sam being a maddeningly all over the place leading part — he mugs, correct mopes, he rebels, my husband flirts, he pines, these all might not be so untenable must movie itself didn’t coup wildly from arch sal to soapy drama. His passion story falters as a result, just like the occasional reminders that there exists a terrible war going on at home, which leads to a shockingly blasé use of horrific violence if you want to engineer a twist finishing. Then again, a movie committed to choose madcap irreverence or substantial melodrama might have made this story point work.

That “The Many individuals Who Sold His Skin” is still watchable is because the basic is still inherently thought-provoking, as well as Ben Hania’s shot formation and cinematographer Christopher Aoun’s images have a confident painterliness. But the relentlessly posed the earth’s atmosphere of everything — even if meant to comment on a constrictive, are made world — doesn’t always allow for scenes that live and additionally breathe. Between the forced beauty and the confused tones, this leaves this well-intentioned tale of transgressive imagination and transactional humanity more temporary in its effect than long lasting.


‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’

Within Arabic, English, French and Flemish with English subtitles

Not rated

Operating time: one hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Playhouse, Laemmle Royal; also available, Laemmle Virtual Cinema