Review: ‘Mafia Mamma,’ starring Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci

April 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Monica Bellucci and Toni Collette in “Mafia Mamma” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Mafia Mamma”

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy and briefly in the Los Angeles area, the comedy/drama film “Mafia Mamma” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An “empty nester” Italian American mother finds out that her recently deceased grandfather in Italy was a Mafia boss whose dying wish was for her to take over the family’s Mafia business in Italy. 

Culture Audience: “Mafia Mamma” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci, as well as anyone to doesn’t mind watching idiotic movies about the Italian Mafia.

Toni Collette and Giulio Corso in “Mafia Mamma” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Mafia Mamma” is an irritating mix of crude comedy and cloying drama failing on every single level. The filmmakers want to fool viewers into thinking that Toni Collette’s shrill and mindless Kristin character is supposed to exemplify “female empowerment.” Collette can usually be counted on to give good performances in even her worst movies. However, Collette (who is one of the producers of “Mafia Mamma”) does nothing but embarrass herself in this moronic and schlocky mess. The rest of the “Mafia Mamma” cast members give equally atrocious or forgettable performances, made worse by the misguided direction and awful screenplay.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, “Mafia Mamma” was written by J. Michael Feldman and Debbie Jhoon, as if it were a stale and outdated movie from the 1980s. It’s the type of comedy/drama that Goldie Hawn might have made back then, when movie audiences were more receptive to seeing someone act like a ditzy blonde who’s thrown into uncomfortable situations while she shrieks, grimaces, and whines about how she doesn’t know how she ended up in these situations. To make things even worse, “Mafia Mamma” tries to pretend that it’s a “feminist” movie, when it’s actually the opposite of a feminist movie, because it makes the female characters in film look very shallow.

And let’s not get started on the utter stupidity of the concept that a powerful Mafia family in Italy would want a naïve and estranged relative, who doesn’t speak Italian, to suddenly take over the family’s Mafia empire in Italy. Even if viewers suspend their disbelief at this flimsy premise for “Mafia Mamma,” the cast members do a terrible job of selling this concept as entertaining. There’s a desperate tone to “Mafia Mamma” that’s very off-putting. It’s like being stuck in a room with people telling bad jokes that they know are bad, but they just ramp up the barrage of foolishness, because they want to convince you that being louder and sillier automatically means “funnier.”

“Mafia Mamma” begins with a scene showing the aftermath of a gun massacre somewhere on a street in Italy. A Mafia general named Bianca (played by Monica Bellucci), who has an ice-cold personality, walks among the dead bodies of men and snarls, “This means war.” She then spits on the ground. Viewers soon find out that Bianca works for the Balbano crime family. And one of the people killed in this massacre was family boss Giuseppe Balbano (Alessandro Bressanello), whose dying wish was for his American-raised granddaughter to take over the family’s Mafia activities, even though this granddaughter has no idea that her family in Italy is in the Mafia.

This granddaughter is pharmaceutical marketing executive Kristin Dorner (played by Collette), who is living in the Los Angeles area with her musician husband Paul Dorner (played by Tim Daish), who is a wannabe rock star in an obscure band. It’s explained later in the movie that Kristin was born in Italy, but she and her widowed mother moved to the United States when Kristin was too young to remember her father, who was Giuseppe’s only child.

Kristin has no siblings. Her mother has been deceased for an untold number of years. Kristin is an overprotective mother to her only child: a son named Domenick, nicknamed Nicky (played by Tommy Rodger), who is seen saying goodbye to his parents as he drives off with two buddies for his first year in college in Portland, Oregon.

Kristin works at a company called ICO Pharma, which is always looking for new drugs to market to the public. She is the only woman in the small group meetings at her job, where the marketing executives have to pitch ideas for new campaigns. Kristin’s boss Hank (played by Jay Natelle) is misogynistic, even though he goes to great lengths to try to make it look he’s not.

Hank is dismissive of Kristin’s ideas and treats her as inferior to the male employees. He over-praises the unoriginal ideas of his male subordinates Randy (played by Yonv Joseph) and Wayne (played by Mitch Salm), which include re-using ad campaign ideas that portray women as sex objects. When Kristin pitches an idea for medication that will give hair growth to balding men, Hank suggests that Kristin work instead on a campaign for Restylane (anti-aging fillers) for women. Kristin’s job at ICO Pharma plays a big role in an awkward slapstick scene and in a nonsensical subplot shown later in the movie.

Kristin not only feels undervalued at work, but she’s also feeling lonely and unappreciated at home. In addition to having “empty nest syndrome,” Kristin has a non-existent sex life. She and Paul have not had sex with each other in three years.

Kristin is about to have a very bad day that will change her life. First, she gets a call from Bianca telling her that Kristin’s paternal grandfather Giuseppe has died in Italy. Even though Kristin never knew him, Kristin still feels a sense of loss that she never got to know this deceased family member.

And then, Kristin gets another bombshell: She walks in on Paul having sex in his music room with a younger woman named Tracy (played by Claire Palazzo), who was Domenick’s high school guidance counselor. Kristin is naturally shocked. It’s one of the few scenes where Kristin gets upset but doesn’t start screeching. An apologetic Paul uses the opportunity to tell Kristin that he wants them to have an open marriage.

Kristin is next seen taking out her anger and frustration in boxing exercises at a gym. Her gym partner is her loud and foul-mouthed best friend Jenny (played by Sophia Nomvete), who is an attorney for ICO Pharma. Jenny suggests that Kristin go to Italy for Giuseppe’s funeral and use the trip as a chance to reclaim her sexuality. Jenny crudely compares it to Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 self-discovery travel memoir “Eat Pray Love,” by saying Kristin’s trip to Italy can be like “Eat Pray Fuck” for Kristin.

“Mafia Mamma” is so poorly written, it isn’t mentioned what Kristin has decided to do about her marriage until after she arrives in Italy. It turns out that she and Paul are separated, but there’s no mention of her filing for divorce. At any rate, Kristin considers herself to be completely single and available. She wants to make one of her fantasies come true by having a romance (or at least passionate sex) with a handsome and attentive Italian man who treats her well.

As soon as Kristin arrives at the airport, and she’s outside in the arrivals/pickup area, she happens to meet an attractive 34-year-old stranger named Lorenzo (played by Giulio Corso), another traveler who’s standing nearby. Lorenzo’s aunt Esmerelda (played by Dora Romano) has arrived to give Lorenzo a car ride, and she’s in a hurry for him to get in the car. However, Lorenzo finds enough time to quickly introduce himself to Kristin, flirt with her, and exchange phone numbers with her. Of course, it won’t be the last time that Kristin sees Lorenzo.

Bianca is Kristin’s main guide in Italy, but two goons who work for the Balbano family are also at Kristin’s service: jittery Aldo (played by Francesco Mastroianni) and quiet Dante (played by Alfonso Perugini), who later become Kristin’s bodyguards. Dante’s body size becomes the butt of some unfunny “fat” jokes in the movie, which frequently makes Dante more concerned about gorging on fattening food than doing his job properly.

At first, Kristin thinks the Balbano side of her family has gotten wealthy from the Balbano winery. However, during Giuseppe’s funeral procession, there’s a shootout that leaves several people dead. Kristin and her entourage barely escape with their lives. A shocked Kristin demands to know what’s going on. And it’s how she finds out that the Balbano family is a Mafia family. The main Mafia enemy of the Balbano family is the Romano family.

Bianca also shows Kristin a video statement that Giuseppe made that he only wanted Kristin to see after he died. In the video, Giuseppe says that his dying wish is for Kristin to take over the family’s Mafia business. This announcement enrages Giuseppe’s great-nephew Fabrizio (played by Eduardo Scarpetta), a dimwitted, tattooed thug who was expecting to be named the leader of the family. It just leads to witless scenes of a rivalry that Fabrizio has with Kristin.

Throughout the movie, Kristin is a fast-talking, nervous chatterbox trying to make people like her, or she’s a screaming ninny trying to get out of a nasty situation. The movie has expected scenes of bloody murder, but there’s some gross-out comedy involving vomit and defecation that look really stupid and childish in a movie that needed a darker edge. The “fish out of water” scenarios for clueless Kristin get tiresome very quickly.

Even though Bellucci shares top billing with Collette, the Bianca character isn’t in the movie as much as she could have been, thereby squandering an opportunity to make the developing friendship between “opposite personalities” Kristin and Bianca into something hilarious. Instead, the movie lazily uses Bellucci’s image as a “sex symbol” to drop major hints that Bianca might be sexually attracted to Kristin, but Bianca doesn’t act on it. It comes across as being a tease just for the sake of being a tease and adds nothing to the story. Bianca is ultimately a hollow character who reveals nothing about herself in this junkpile film.

“Mafia Mamma” also mishandles what could have been the most suspenseful part of the movie: the rivalry between the Balbano family and the Romano family. The Romanos are too generic and uninteresting. Carlo Romano (played by Giuseppe Zeno) is the family boss at one point in the story, but he’s not in the movie for very long. A high-ranking family member named Mammone Romano (played by Vincenzo Pirrotta) is barely in the movie and doesn’t make much of an impact.

“Mafia Mamma” is also a bloated film that tries to cram in too many ideas, most of which have inexcusable plot holes and just make everyone involved look like morons. Nothing about the story and characters in “Mafia Mamma” looks believable. The movie becomes too long and drawn-out as more ludicrious plot twists emerge. There’s such an overload of bad acting and horrible comedy in “Mafia Mamma,” it truly is a crime against cinema.

Bleecker Street will release “Mafia Mamma” in U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on May 2, 2023.

Review: ‘Memory’ (2022), starring Liam Neeson, Guy Pearce and Monica Bellucci

April 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Liam Neeson in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Memory” (2022)

Directed by Martin Campbell 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico and Texas, the action film “Memory” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An assassin, who’s in the early stages of having Alzheimer’s disease, goes after people involved in child sex trafficking, as his memory begins to falter.

Culture Audience: “Memory” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Liam Neeson and anyone who cares more about shootouts and other violence in a movie instead of a movie having a good story.

Monica Bellucci and Guy Pearce in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

Liam Neeson and the filmmakers of “Memory” sink to new lows of action movie schlock with the tacky gimmick of making Neeson’s character a forgetful assassin with Alzheimer’s disease. “Memory” mishandles this debilitating disease in ways that go behind cringeworthy and are downright insulting to people who really have suffered from this terrible illness. Alzheimer’s disease robs people of the ability to remember and communicate clearly. “Memory” robs viewers who are unlucky enough to waste time and/or money watching this garbage film.

Directed by Martin Campbell and written by Dario Scardapane, “Memory” (which takes place in Mexico and Texas) is an inferior remake of director Erik Van Looy’s 2003 Belgian film “The Memory of a Killer.” Because “Memory” is based on a movie of much higher quality than this sloppy remake, it has a little bit more of a complex plot than the simplistic action junk that Neeson usually churns out with robotic regularity. However, “Memory” still manages to be a remake that pollutes the story with a lot of hackneyed stereotypes and stupid scenarios.

“Memory” starts out looking like a typical B-level crime thriller, repeating the same concept for almost all of the action movies starring Neeson. But somewhere in the middle of the film, “Memory” takes a steep nosedive into idiocy that at times can be painfully dull. There’s also very little suspense or mystery, because everything happens in such a predictable way.

In these formulaic flicks, Neeson portrays an “anti-hero” who kills people out of revenge or out of necessity because he really just wants to save helpless victims. The victims he wants to save are usually women and/or children. Neeson’s choices in starring in action movies with these repetitive plots indicate that he has a serious complex/fixation on wanting to portray “murderers with a heart of gold.”

The opening scene repeats a familiar murder scenario that’s been seen most of Neeson’s action films. In “Memory,” Neeson portrays an assassin-for-hire named Alex Lewis. The movie’s first scene takes place in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Alex is disguised as a hospital orderly on duty in the room where an elderly woman is bedridden and using an oxygen tube to breathe. Somehow, Alex knows exactly when this woman’s thuggish-looking son is going to visit.

It’s never really explained why this son is target of the murder that Alex is about to commit, but this unnamed target is first seen swaggering through the hospital with a bouquet of flowers. He leers at the hospital receptionist and flirts with her in a way that’s borderline inappropriate. She seems to like the attention though, and she smiles when it looks like he’s leaving the bouquet of flowers for her. But he smirks when he pulls the flowers away and says that the flowers aren’t for her. She looks dejected and embarrassed as he walks away.

The only purpose for this scene is to make this unnamed man look like a jerk, so viewers won’t feel much sympathy for him when Alex ambushes the man in the hospital room and strangles him to death with a wire. The man had gone to the hospital with a male companion, who didn’t accompany the man in the room when this murder took place. There is no explanation for who these men really are, because Alex isn’t really supposed to care either.

It’s the beginning of more mindless (no pun intended) scenes in “Memory,” which has Alex commit a string of badly staged murders that are too unrealistic, even in a stupid action movie. In one of the murders, Alex is in a public parking garage and ties his victim to the steering wheel of a car. And then he blows up the car, as if this parking garage doesn’t have any surveillance cameras.

In another unrealistic murder scene (shown in the “Memory” trailer), Alex shoots a man on the other side of a window in a public gym. The murder victim is on a treadmill, when the window shatters from Alex’s gunshots. A woman on a treadmill is in the same room just about a dozen feet away, but viewers are supposed to believe that, because she’s wearing headphones, she doesn’t hear the gunshots, the glass shattering, or the thud of the victim’s body hitting the floor. Meanwhile, Alex just casually walks away after gunning down this murder victim.

“Memory” also rehashes another cliché in a Neeson action movie: His character wants to quit the criminal lifestyle and “go straight.” In “Memory,” the reason why Alex wants to suddenly become an upstanding citizen is not because he has a guilty conscience about all the people he’s killed but it’s because he’s losing his ability to remember. In other words, Alex knows he will become an incompetent assassin, so he wants to quit while he’s ahead, to prevent his assassin reputation from being ruined.

It’s revealed fairly early on in the movie that Alex has an older brother who has Alzheimer’s disease and is in a nursing home, where Alex visits him and bitterly snaps at a nurse who gives Alex some helpful information. And what a coincidence: Alex has all the signs of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He’s taking medication for it. And in one of the murder scenes, Alex accidentally drops his bottle of prescription pills at the crime scene.

After committing the hospital murder in Guadalajara, Alex is next seen in Mexico City, where he meets up with an assassin colleague named Mauricio (played by Lee Boardman), who is upset that Alex wants to quit. When Alex tells Mauricio, “I’m out,” Mauricio practically snarls at Alex and responds, “Men like us don’t retire.”

Meanwhile, Alex’s murder spree gets entangled with an undercover FBI investigation to bust an international child sex trafficking operation. FBI agent Vincent Serra (played by Guy Pearce) is first seen in the movie, in a scene taking place in El Paso, Texas. Vincent is undercover as a prostitution customer in a run-down home, where a sleazy father named Papa Leon (played by Antonio Jaramillo) is pimping out his 13-year-old daughter Beatriz Leon (played by Mia Sanchez), who’s expected to sexually service Vincent.

Papa Leon is part of an extensive sex trafficking ring that pays undocumented immigrants from Mexico to come to the United States and sell their children into sex slavery. (Beatriz’s mother is apparently dead.) The undercover sting goes awry, when Beatriz notices that Vincent is wearing a surveillance wire. She shouts this information to her father, who panics and attacks Vincent.

A major physical fight ensues between Papa Leon and Vincent. FBI agents, who were listening in during this sting operation in a nearby van, rush to the building to provide backup for Vincent. Papa Leon and Vincent crash out of a second-floor window during their brawl. Papa Leon is instantly killed in the fall, while Vincent has sustained minor injuries.

Beatriz is taken to a detention center for undocumented immigrants. When Vincent visits Beatriz, he tries to get information from her about the people who are part of this sex trafficking ring. She refuses to tell because her father ordered her never to snitch. Beatriz is also very angry at Vincent, whom she blames for her father’s death.

Vincent feels guilty because he knows how inhumane these detention centers can be. And so, even though Beatriz is an uncooperative witness, Vincent arranges for her to be taken out of the detention center and into a group home for orphaned children. If Vincent thought that Beatriz would be safer in this group home, he was wrong.

That’s because the “one last hit” that Alex has agreed to do before he “retires” takes place in El Paso, and it involves Beatriz. Alex has been ordered to kill two people in this hit job: One is a businessman named Ellis Van Camp (played by Scot Williams), whom Alex strangles in Ellis’ home where Ellis lives with his wife Wendy Can Camp (played by Rebecca Calder) and their teenage daughter. Only Ellis is killed, because “Memory” goes out of its way to show that Alex doesn’t kill “innocent” women and children.

Alex finds out that the other person he’s supposed to kill in this hit job is Beatriz. He doesn’t find out that she’s a child until he shows up and surprises her while she’s sleeping in the group home. It’s a huge, hard-to-believe plot hole that a so-called “professional” hit man doesn’t even know what his target looks like, let alone that she’s a child. Alex is horrified when he sees that Beatriz is a child. Beatriz sees this stranger with a gun pointed at her, so she begs him not to kill her. Alex backs away and leaves the house undetected.

Alex tells Mauricio that he won’t go through with the deal, because Alex says he will never kill children. Even if Alex wanted to return the money that he was paid, Mauricio warns Alex that he can’t cancel the deal, but Alex doesn’t care. The person who hired Alex for this assassin job is a real estate attorney named William Borden (played by Daniel De Bourg), who gets roughed up and punched by Alex when Alex tells William to call off this assassin contract.

Meanwhile, because of the botched sting involving Papa Leon and because Beatriz is an uncooperative witness who is likely to be deported, the FBI dismantles the task force that was involved in this sting. Vincent is upset because he thinks the group is close to busting the leaders and frequent customers of this sex trafficking ring. Vincent’s immediate supervisor is a no-nonsense FBI official named Gerald Nussbaum (played by Ray Fearon), who tells Vincent that the orders to shut down the task force came from FBI authorities who are ranked higher than Gerald.

The other task force members are a sensible and even-tempered FBI agent named Linda Amistead (played by Taj Atwal) and a mysterious and hot-headed Mexican law enforcement official named Hugo Marquez (played by Harold Torres), who has a vague background and prefers to be called Marquez. It’s stated that Marquez might or might not have official authority from Mexico to help this task force, but apparently, the FBI in this movie never bothered to check. The task force needs Marquez because he claims to have connections in Mexico that can help the task force members get the information that they need. The FBI has officially disbanded the task force, but Vincent, Linda and Marquez agree to secretly continue working on the case together.

It should come as no surprise that Ellis Van Camp was suspected of being involved in this sex-trafficking ring. That’s why Vincent, Linda and Hugo go to the Van Camp house to interview Ellis’ widow Wendy, who is not helpful because she claims she doesn’t know why her husband was murdered. The El Paso Police Department has a detective named Danny Mora (played by Ray Stevenson), who’s heading the murder investigation. Detective Mora is at the house to interview Wendy too.

Predictably, the FBI agents clash with the cops from the El Paso Police Department, as more murders are committed in El Paso that are related to this sex trafficking ring. William Borden works for a real estate mogul named Davana Sealman (played by Monica Bellucci), who runs her company with her spoiled son Randy Sealman (played by Josh Taylor), whom she sometimes calls Rafo. They’re all desperately looking for some computer flash drives that have some very incriminating evidence.

Even before the movie reveals what’s on the flash drives, it’s very easy to figure out who are the guilty people, and why they don’t want anyone else to know what’s on the flash drives. And when Alex finds out, suddenly he doesn’t want to be a retired hit man anymore. He wants to kill everyone he can find who’s involved in this sex trafficking ring. There are no real surprises in “Memory,” which has all the subtlety of one of the movie’s many bloody shootout scenes.

One of the people killed by Alex is William Borden, whose murder is already revealed in the “Memory” trailer. Some innocent people who are not involved in the sex trafficking get killed along the way too. Law enforcement is hunting Alex, who is the prime suspect in all of these deaths. Meanwhile, the people who hired Alex want him dead because he didn’t kill Beatriz. It all just leads to one ludicrous chase and fight scene after another.

There’s a gruesome point in the movie where Alex gets a deep gunshot wound in his abdomen, and he lights the wound on fire, ostensibly to try to disinfect the wound so he could remove the bullet. But Alex actually doesn’t remove the bullet. That’s because his Alzheimer’s disease kicks in at random moments and he forgets things. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Memory” is plagued with a lot of hokey dialogue and awkward scenes. For example, there are multiple scenes where vain and image-conscious Davana is getting Botox treatments in her home from her personal physician, Dr. Joseph Myers (played by Atanas Srebrev), who tactfully tries to tell her to age gracefully. Davana doesn’t want to hear it though. She spouts some gibberish about DNA being like an algorithm and that aging should be manipulated and controlled like an algorithm.

In another clumsily acted sequence, FBI investigators interview Maryanne Borden (played by Natalie Anderson), the widow of slain attorney William Borden. Maryanne, who is haughty and dismissive, essentially tells investigators that she was a trophy wife who really didn’t love her husband. Later, Marquez goes to the Borden home alone to get more information from Maryanne, who’s in a once-piece swimsuit, and she tries to seduce him by pulling down the upper half of the swimsuit. If this is the movie’s attempt to be sexy, it’s a miserable failure.

In another scene that looks very phony, Vincent and Linda are “undercover” at a yacht party attended by Randy Sealman. The problem with this scene is that Vincent and Linda look, act and dress like obvious law enforcement agents who are there as part of an investigation. While everyone on the yacht is dressed in swimwear or party clothes, Vincent and Linda are dressed in casual business suits. These FBI agents glance furtively around at people when they talk, because clearly look like they don’t know anyone at the party. It’s just an example of the many terribly filmed scenes in the movie.

Alex’s murky past is given a very lackluster and poorly conceived backstory. When Vincent does a background check on prime suspect Alex, this FBI agent finds out that Alex and his brother used to be troublemakers in their childhood, with arrest records for their crimes. However, Alex and his father both have death certificates. What really happened in this family? That part of the story is not as intriguing as “Memory” would lead viewers to believe, because it all takes a back seat to the violence and gore.

None of the acting in “Memory” is special, because all of the main stars of the movie have played versions of these characters in much better films. Bellucci’s stiff and wooden acting drags the film down even more. Neeson’s character in “Memory” forgets a lot of important details, but it seems like Neeson has forgotten how to make good action films.

Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment released “Memory” in U.S. cinemas on April 29, 2022.

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.

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