Greetings again from the darkness. Lao Tzu wrote, “Being loved deeply by someone gives you strength, while loving someone gives you courage.” But to what extreme would you go for true love, and how far is too far? Writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania offers an early scene on a commuter train as Sam Ali and Abeer flirt and tease to the point that he publically, and loudly, proclaims his love for her. Unfortunately for him, his outburst occurs in Syria, where human rights are always in peril. In fact, this love story is burdened with the weight of human rights, individual choices, and the power of art.
Ms. Ben Hania bookends her film with a choreographed art installation coated in a blizzard of white walls and white gloves. It’s 2011, when a distant relative in law enforcement assists Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) with his (quite creative) escape from Syria to Lebanon – after a painful slap of reality accompanies Sam’s goodbye to his beloved Abeer (Dea Liane in her first screen credit). As Sam flees for his life, Abeer is pressured by her family into an arranged marriage.
We then flash forward one year to find Sam working in a Beirut chicken factory. He scrounges for food at the buffet of local art galleries until one day he is spotted by Soraya (a blond Monica Bellucci), the agent for acclaimed artist Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen De Bouw). When Sam and Godefroy meet, the artist tells him that art is “alive” and, more precisely, “I want your back”. A Faustian deal is cut. Godefroy turns Sam Ali into a living piece of art by tattooing his back, and Sam gets the travel visa he desperately needs to reunite with Abeer.
With Sam basically a commodity (there are even T-shirts of his back in the gift shop), there are protests to his being exploited – this despite Sam enjoying the nice hotels, room service, and promise of the visa. Of course, as with any commodity, it’s only a matter of time before the almighty dollar comes into play, and soon Sam is auctioned off to a collector. Subtle humor has a role throughout much of the film, and Mr. Mahayni is quite believable as a Syrian refugee sacrificing for love. Ms. Ben Hania’s film is inspired by “Tim”, an original artwork tattoo by Wim Delvoye sold to a collector in 2008. Mr. Delvoye, a controversial Belgian artist, even makes a brief appearance here as an insurance agent. This is a thought-provoking love story, survival tale, and commentary on the bent side of the art world. When is a man truly free? We don’t typically think of Tunisia as a hotbed for cinema, but this film deserves attention.
This is Tunisia’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar