April 9, 2021 7:00 AM EDT

A movie that ends in a place you don’t expect can either be frustrating or satisfying, depending on the means a filmmaker takes to get there. The Man Who Sold His Skin, from Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, hits some ominous and sinister notes as it tangles with serious political and social issues, among them the plight of refugees, the nature of art and exploitation, and various facets of self-loathing. But it ends on a surprisingly airy note, and that makes all the difference. The world is full of worthy, artistic movies that unduly punish us, but The Man Who Sold His Skin—which has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best International Feature category—isn’t one of them.

Sam Ali (played by a fiery and soulful newcomer named Yahya Mahayni) is a young Syrian man who, in an ebullient and incautious moment—a title card tells us it’s 2011—jumbles political ideals with euphoria when he publicly declares his grand love for his girlfriend, Abeer (Dea Liane), with the words, “It’s a revolution! We want freedom!” A snitch captures the moment on his cellphone, and Ali lands in jail. After a lucky escape—he makes his getaway in the back of a pickup truck loaded with colorful woven carrier bags, which mimic precisely the plaid of his shirt—he shows up at the gate of Abeer’s house, informing her he needs to leave the country immediately.

Sam is a charming scrapper, but Abeer, who comes from an affluent family, has the chance to marry a stable, if decidedly unsexy, diplomat based in Brussels—certainly a boon when you’re living in a country on the brink of a civil war. Sam escapes to Beirut, where he embarks on the cheerless life of a political refugee, toiling away in a poultry factory. He’s a prisoner of circumstance, and his love for Abeer, who has moved to Belgium with her husband, is clearly doomed.

Or so he thinks. One evening, while filching food from an art-gallery buffet table, he’s accosted by a frosty, willowy blond, her hair marshalled into aggressive mermaid waves. This vixen, Soraya—played by a deviously silky-smooth Monica Bellucci—sees a spark of something in Sam, and introduces him to her partner, the slick and obviously untrustworthy European artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw). Jeffrey propositions Sam: He will arrange things so Jeffrey can travel freely to Belgium to pursue Abeer. All he asks in return is a patch of skin—Sam’s back, smooth, muscular and rather magnificent—which he will turn into a piece of art, paying Sam a portion of whatever money he makes off the work. As a human canvas, Sam will also be required to make himself available for display in galleries and museums, to sit shirtless on a pedestal while observers gawk. He signs on almost without hesitation, and without asking what, exactly, he’ll be carrying on his back.

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I prefer not to give that detail away, except to say that it’s a symbol of freedom and privilege that means nothing to some and the world to others. And if the idea of an artist owning real estate on another human’s body sounds far-fetched, consider that Ben Hania was inspired by a 2008 work known as Tim, by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, a tattoo rendered on the back of former tattoo parlor manager Tim Steiner. (As part of a living artwork, Steiner has agreed to sit for public observation in a gallery at least three times a year, and when he dies, the skin of his back will be removed and framed.) Ben Hania fully understands the metaphorical weight of her movie’s plot details, specifically its questions about what it means to benefit from someone else’s precarious situation or suffering. And there are places where the movie stumbles a bit under the unwieldiness of its ideas: At one point a character spells out one of its readymade themes, that we live in an era when the “circulation of commodities is much freer than that of a human being.”

But the movie works even so, largely because Ben Hania has such sure command over its dashes of black humor—there’s a disgustingly gratifying pimple-popping sequence—and because she refuses to give in to fatalism. (Ben Hania has directed one previous feature, 2017’s Beauty and the Dogs.) Shot by Christopher Aoun, the movie is handsome to look at, a blend of lustrous textures and compositions: Ben Hania finds clever ways to dispense several pieces of visual information at once, like using a faux split-screen effect to show two characters’ dueling feelings. And while Sam’s back is ostensibly the center of attention, it’s Mahayni’s face that carries most of the movie’s emotional weight. In a scene where he anxiously rings Abeer, knowing she belongs to someone else but wondering if she might still have feelings for him, his smile stretches into a fake, almost cadaverous grin—as if he knows he’s staked his very skin on a fool’s errand but realizes he’s gone too far to turn back. Later, when she asks one of the universal romantic questions—”Why did you lie to me?”—he responds with the only answer: “Because I’m an idiot.” The plaintiveness of his surrender is both funny and mournful.

Some may see the decidedly not-tragic ending of The Man Who Sold His Skin as a copout, a betrayal of the story’s more downbeat undertones. But it’s really more of an affirmation of the way most of us get through life: we live for the promise that a little luck can change everything. Sometimes that promise fulfills itself against all odds, in a kind of tragedy-averting handspring. If The Man Who Sold His Skin seeks to wrap itself around some complicated ideas, it ultimately settles on a cosmically straightforward one: Our fate is written not in ink, but in the stars.

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