Art satire meets immigration drama in the Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin.” Ben Hania repurposes a real-life chapter from the annals of the art world, when the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye tattooed the back of a man, and then sold it as art. What sounds like a recipe for trouble — what about the human who’s the canvas? — is exactly where the movie lives, spinning a prickly cautionary tale of exploitation and commodification.
Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) is jailed after declaring his love for Abeer (Dea Liane) on a train in Syria. Escaping to Lebanon, he crosses paths with a high-flying artiste, Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), who offers legal passage to Europe in exchange for conscripting Sam in an audacious project. That entails tattooing Sam’s back with a Schengen visa and showcasing him in museums. (Lending a plot assist as Jeffrey’s modish associate is Monica Bellucci.)
Sam keeps Skyping with Abeer, who’s now stuck in a parent-approved marriage to a diplomat, and their slender romantic thread pulls the story along through Sam’s sometimes clunky trials as a museum piece and luxury-hotel inmate. His feelings of being a perpetual outsider, valued for everything but his personhood, body forth the dehumanizing elements of some immigrant experience.
The lustrously shot movie breaks Sam out of the gallery grind through Hollywood-grade somersaults in storytelling (one of them so breezily violent as to feel a little tasteless). But the story evidently struck a chord, garnering an Academy Award nomination (like “The Square” before it) in the international feature category.
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.