Review: ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin,’ starring Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw and Monica Bellucci

April 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Koen De Bouw and Yahya Mahayni in “The Man Who Sold His Skin” (Photo courtesy of Tanit Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“The Man Who Sold His Skin”

Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania

English, Arabic and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2011 to 2013 in Syria, Lebanon, Belgium and Switzerland, the dramatic film “The Man Who Sold His Skin” features a cast of white and Arabic characters representing working-class refugees, the middle-class and the wealthy.

Culture Clash: A Syrian refugee agrees to be paid to have his back tattooed and to display himself as “living art,” but his contract with a rich and famous Belgian artist comes at a heavy price.

Culture Audience: “The Man Who Sold His Skin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing a compelling movie that shows an intersection between the art world and the world of war refugees.

Dea Liane, Yahya Mahayni and Monica Bellucci in “The Man Who Sold His Skin” (Photo courtesy of Tanit Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“The Man Who Sold His Skin” is a fascinating mashup of a love story, social commentary on refugee issues, and a scornful indictment of the elitist world of high-priced and trendy art collecting. It’s a lot to pack into a 104-minute movie, but “The Man Who Sold His Skin” mostly succeeds in weaving everything together coherently. The last 20 minutes of the movie have some plot twists that are rushed, a little awkward, and require some suspension of disbelief. However, these very contrived plot developments don’t take away from the movie’s intention of showing how human lives can be valued and devalued.

Written and directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is a fictional story inspired by a real-life experience that she had in 2012. Ben Hania says in the movie’s production notes: “The idea for ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ began germinating in my head in 2012. I was at the Louvre in Paris, which at the time was devoting a retrospective to Belgium artist Wim Delvoye. There I saw, in Napoleon III Apartments, Delvoye’s ‘Tim’ (2006 – 08), in which the artist had tattooed the back of Tim Steiner, who was sitting on an
armchair with his shirt off displaying Delvoye’s design.”

In “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” a Syrian refugee is the one who agrees to have a Belgian artist tattoo his back and display him as “living art.” The refugee does it for the money, but it comes at a huge cost to his dignity, emotional well-being and possibly his freedom. How did he end up in this situation? And can he get out of it? “The Man Who Sold His Skin” tells that story in way that will keep viewers riveted.

Sam Ali (played by Yahya Mahayni), who appears to be in his early-to-mid 30s, didn’t think he would end up as a Syrian prisoner and later a refugee. The movie begins in 2011, by showing flashbacks to Sam’s life before and after it was turned upside down by the Syrian civil war that started in March of that year. Before the war, Sam’s biggest problem was how to get his girlfriend Abeer Al-Khateeb (played by Dea Liane) to marry him when she hasn’t even told her family that they’re dating.

Sam and Abeer are shown riding on a train together. At first they’re sitting right next to each other. But the growing divisiveness in Syria is implied when Sam puts his arm around Abeer and she tells him to stop because she doesn’t know who else on the train might seem them together. “What if someone knows my family?” she asks Sam.

Sam obliges her request to not show public displays of affection. He even goes as far as moving to another seat that’s in the row next to the row where Abeer is sitting. As they continue their conversation, Sam asks Abeer why she’s never told her mother about him. She doesn’t really give an answer, but viewers can easily see that there’s some kind of class divide that has made Abeer ashamed or frightened to tell her family that she and Sam are dating each other.

And although it’s not said out loud, Abeer probably comes from a family that believes in arranged marriages, because it’s implied that Sam and Abeer are both Muslim. Sam somewhat nervously asks Abeer about a man she’s scheduled meeting the next day. Abeer tells Sam that this man works at the Syrian embassy in Belgium.

While they’re talking on the train, Abeer seem to feel badly about keeping her romance with Sam a secret. She somewhat bashfully tells him, “I love you.” Sam is so elated that Abeer said these words out loud to him in public, he reacts with over-the-top enthusiasm by getting up and telling everyone in the train car that he loves Abeer.

And then, Sam goes one step further and yells to everyone that he wants to marry her. Abeer is caught up in the excitement of Abeer’s shouting and hugging and appears to agree to his marriage proposal. Some of the people offer congratulations, and a man on the train is seen filming this spectacle on his phone.

But Sam and Abeer’s happiness together comes to a crashing halt. Somehow, Sam ends up in jail after the Syrian civil war has begun. The movie never shows the details over why Sam is in jail. And it also isn’t revealed how long after his marriage proposal to Abeer that Sam ended up incarcerated. However, it’s mentioned at one point in the movie that Sam was wrongfully imprisoned.

In Syrian jails, prisoners are allowed to have cats in their jail cells. Sam is shown with a young orange tabby cat as his only companion in his cell. He’s taken out of solitary confinement and then put in a crowded cell with about six to eight other men. The cat is seen several times in the movie as a symbol of the one constant in Sam’s life during this story’s approximately two-year period, which takes him on a turbulent personal journey in several countries.

It isn’t spoiler information to reveal that Sam escapes from prison, with help from someone on the outside. And the first place he goes after he escapes is to Abeer’s home. It’s implied that Sam and Abeer haven’t seen each other in several months. When she does seem him again, Sam is dirty, disheveled and desperate.

This isn’t going to be a happy reunion because while Sam was in jail, Abeer ended up dating the embassy worker whom she met the day after Sam proposed marriage to her. The embassy worker’s name is Ziad (played by Saad Lostan), and viewers will later see that he’s an arrogant, jealous and hot-tempered man. Sam knows that Abeer is now dating another man, which is why he’s somewhat humiliated to ask Abeer if Ziad can do anything to help Sam with his legal problems.

As Sam and Abeer are having this conversation outside of her house, Ziad comes out of the house to see what’s going on. It’s the first time that Ziad and Sam will meet, but it won’t be the last time that they see each other. The conversation is brief, but it’s clear that both men know about each other’s relationship with Abeer. Ziad is asked if there’s anything he can do to help Sam, but Ziad somewhat coldly and dismissively says that there’s nothing he can do because he works in foreign affairs.

Because Sam is a prison escapee, he knows that if he’s caught, he will face even worse punishment. And there’s also the problem of the escalating civil war in Syria, where Sam could be forced into combat. And so, he makes plans to be live with his sister (played by Najoua Zouhair) in Lebanon. Sam’s family members do not have names in this movie, perhaps as a way to put an emphasis on his isolation throughout most of the movie.

Sam’s sister smuggles Sam out of Syria in her car, and they arrive safely in Lebanon. And yes, that orange tabby cat is along for the ride. Sam’s mother (played by Darina Al Joundi) has stayed behind in Syria. Sam and his mother keep in contact by Skype conversations, which are shown in the movie.

One year after escaping from Syria, Sam is living in Lebanon, but he’s miserable. Abeer is now married to Ziad, and they both live in Belgium, where Ziad still works for the Syrian embassy. Sam and Abeer still keep in touch with each other through Skype conversations, which Abeer keeps a secret from Ziad for as long as possible.

Sam tries to keep a friendly and upbeat relationship with Abeer, but there’s still an unspoken love between them. Sam never says anything inappropriate to her, nor does he try to get her to cheat on Ziad. However, the fact that Abeer is keeping her communications with Sam a secret from Abeer means that she thinks there’s something to hide. In one scene, Ziad comes into the room while Abeer is talking to Sam by Skype, and Sam quickly moves away from the camera before Abeer eventually disconnects the conversation.

It weighs heavily on Sam that he can’t see Abeer. And so, he dreams of one day going to Belgium, since it’s highly unlikely she will ever go to Lebanon to visit him. In Lebanon, Sam works as a chicken sexer (a low-paying job where workers determine the gender of baby chickens, which are usually on an assembly line), but his real passion is art.

Sam and a fellow Syrian refugee named Hazem (played by Jan Dahdoh), who works with Sam at the chicken factory, spend some of their evenings by crashing party events for high-priced art. Their main purpose is to steal some of the catered food that’s on tables for the event guests. However, Sam also tries to look at the art on display since he appreciates fine art. Sometimes he’s with Hazem when he sneaks into these events, and sometimes he’s by himself.

Sam has various tricks for getting into these events when he’s not on the guest list. In one tactic, he waits in the lobby and pretends to be talking on the phone near some people who are on the guest list. When the people on the guest list have their names checked out and allowed entry, Sam casually walks next to them, as if he’s with these guests.

The tactic doesn’t really work at a certain party where Sam is by himself and has already been exposed that he’s a party crasher when the lobby attendants don’t see his name on the guest list. The lobby attendants have noticed that Sam has walked into the party with legitimate guests, so they alert security. Sam doesn’t get thrown out of the party because one of the hosts of the party named Soraya Waldy (played by Monica Bellucci) sees him and is intrigued.

Soraya immediately figures out that Sam is a Syrian refugee who’s there to steal food, and she decides that he’s harmless. Soraya takes charge, approaches Sam discreetly, and tells him if he can wait until the party is over, he’ll get a package of food that are leftovers. Sam’s pride is wounded and he tells Soraya, “Fuck you,” as he walks off into the bar area.

One of the men having drinks at the bar is a very rich and famous Belgian artist, but Sam doesn’t know it at first. The artist’s name is Jeffrey Godefroi (played by Koen De Bouw) and his art is on display at this event. Media outlets have called Jeffrey “the world’s most expensive living artist,” because each piece of his work is priced in the high millions.

Soraya is Jeffrey’s agent. She points out Sam, who doesn’t notice them, and tells Jeffrey: “He’s a Syrian refugee, and he’s a freeloader.” The next thing you know, Jeffrey is having a conversation at the bar with Sam.

Jeffrey offers to buy Sam a drink, and then Jeffrey slowly drops hints about who he is while trying to find out what Sam’s story is. First, Jeffrey says that he’s an artist from Belgium, but that he’s a little bit American. Sam is immediately interested because he wants to visit Abeer in Belgium.

Sam begins to opens up to Jeffrey by telling him that he has a girlfriend who lives in Belgium but they can’t see each other right now. Sam is vague about why, because he doesn’t want to tell Jeffrey that Abeer is married and Sam can’t afford to travel to Belgium. At this point, Jeffrey already knows that Sam is broke and desperate.

The conversation then takes a metaphorical turn when Jeffrey says that he can offer Sam a “flying carpet” to Belgium. Sam replies sarcastically, Do you think you’re a genie?” Jeffrey laughs and says, “Sometimes I think I’m [the demon] Mephistopheles.” Sam asks, “You want my soul?” Jeffrey replies, “I want your back.”

And so begins Sam’s turbulent experience in Jeffrey’s orbit and in the fickle world of wealthy art collectors looking for the next big thing. Jeffrey tells Sam that he wants to do an art project that pushes boundaries that Jeffrey has never pushed before: Jeffrey wants to tattoo someone’s entire back and then put that person on display as “living art” in Belgium. Jeffrey tells Sam he would be the perfect person for this project.

At first, Sam is reluctant because the contract requires that Sam has to be on display wherever Jeffrey thinks he should be. As payment, Jeffrey offers Sam one-third of the resale value that Jeffrey gets from selling this “living art” elaborate back tattoo as a traveling art project. Sam agrees to the deal and signs the contract.

The large back tattoo ends up being of a giant passport, because Sam’s story as a Syrian refugee is being used to sell Sam as “living art.” It reeks of exploitation, but Sam initially sees it as a “win-win” situation: He gets an all-expenses-paid trip to Belgium (where he stays at a five-star hotel), the country where Abeer lives, and he’ll be getting enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life, which he hopes will include Abeer.

To get around human trafficking laws, Jeffrey and Soraya have “donated” this art project to a Belgian museum. However, it’s implied that Jeffrey and Soraya have a back-room deal where they get some of the revenue from the museum’s ticket sales. The movie reveals whether or not any of that money ends up being paid to Sam as part of his agreed commission. Abeer lives in the Belgian capital of Brussels, and it’s implied (based on what happens later in the story) that the museum where Sam goes on display is also in or near Brussels.

Sam doesn’t want Abeer to know that he’s sold himself as an art exhibit. Instead, when he excitedly calls Abeer to tell her that he’s in Belgium on business, he lies by saying that he’s working as an assistant for a famous Belgian artist. Sam misleads Abeer into thinking that he does the usual work of an art assistant. Abeer and Sam begin chatting by Skype again, but she seems very afraid of meeting up with him in person. However, Abeer seems happy for Sam and his new career, because she knows how much he loves art.

There’s a bit of a plot hole when it comes to Abeer not knowing about the type of work that Sam is really doing for Jeffrey, but this plot hole can be explained away. The “living art” exhibit is big news in the Belgian media because of Jeffrey’s fame. Sam’s full name is also mentioned in the media reports.

However, viewers will have to assume that Abeer somehow never saw these media reports, because Sam is able to keep lying to Abeer about the nature of his job. It’s also implied that Abeer isn’t really interested in art and therefore this news about the exhibit wouldn’t be on her radar. However, the news is big enough that it draws the attention of human rights groups. There’s also a documentary filmmaker named Marc Sheen (played by Marc de Panda), who’s doing a documentary about this traveling exhibit

While Sam is in Belgium, he gets a visit at his hotel room from Adel Saadi (played by Husam Chadat), chair of the Organization of the Defense of Syrian Refugees. Adel warns Sam that he’s being exploited, and he offers his organization’s help in getting Sam out of this situation. Sam angrily responds that he if he wants to sell his own “back or ass,” that it’s no one else’s business. Sam then slams the door in Adel’s face.

The rest of “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is a topsy-turvy ride where Sam has to reckon with his choices and how these choices might affect the rest of his life. It’s enough to say that Sam underestimated the “traveling exhibit” part of his contract. Jeffrey and Soraya get greedier and find a way to “sell” Sam as an art display to a wealthy Swiss art collector named Christian Waltz (played by Patrick Albenque), who shows off Sam as if Sam is a well-paid-for trophy.

What about human trafficking laws? Soraya explains to someone in the movie that the Swiss government has more lenient laws than other countries when it comes to human trafficking. And so, it was legal to do this transaction in Switzerland, because it falls under the Swiss government’s definition of “art dealing.” Of course, being stuck in Switzerland is a problem for Sam because he wants to be in Belgium. However, Soraya and Jeffrey are willing to go to extremes to hold Sam to his contract.

It’s easy to see why “The Man Who Sold His Skin” has been getting awards recognition. It’s the first Tunisian-made film to be Oscar-nominated for Best International Feature. And at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival, Mahayni won the award for Best Actor, for his role in “The Man Who Sold His Skin.” Mahayni gives a complex and engrossing performance as a man who has escaped one oppressive environment to unknowingly jump into another oppressive environment. The movie’s other main cast members give commendable performances, but “The Man Who Sold His Skin” wouldn’t work as well without Mahayni’s authentic portrayal.

Without being preachy, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” offers blistering scrutiny of the different ways that refugees and other marginalized people can be taken advantage of by powerful and privileged people. And on another level, the movie is an incisive, almost satirical look at the world of high-priced art collecting and who gets to determine the value of art. When rich people get into bidding wars over art, who’s being manipulated and who really profits?

Writer/director Ben Hania infuses the movie with enough suspense to immerse viewers in this story. Some of the movie becomes a bit like a soap opera when it comes to the love triangle between Sam, Abeer and Ziad. However, any melodrama in the story doesn’t ruin the movie. Viewers will be rooting for protagonist Sam, who has his share of heartbreak in this story.

The plot’s main flaw is when a major player in the story does something that’s completely out of character, in order to have a pivotal plot development that seems designed to be more crowd-pleasing than realistic. The about-face in this person’s character just doesn’t ring true. However, if viewers are looking for a richly layered and unique movie about how the world of European art and the world of Syrian refugees can collide, then “The Man Who Sold His Skin” should meet or exceed most expectations.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “The Man Who Sold His Skin” in New York City on April 2, 2021, and in Los Angeles on April 9, 2021. The movie’s U.S. release will expand to more cities over the next few weeks.