World War III: A definitive and decisive history of rage

World War III still
4 min read
14 October, 2022

There are past traumas that are hard – if not impossible – to overcome.

Often, the psychological and emotional distress caused by a loss can trigger a series of tragic consequences. Days go by, and one may struggle to find a reason to wake up the next day.

Then, a tiny sparkle of hope shows up at your doorstep, unexpectedly. But all that glitters is not gold.

"With World War III, Seyedi demonstrates his expert knowledge of the directing craft and the actor’s work through an elegant mise-en-scene and excellent character development"

This is the course of events at the core of Houman Seyedi’s sixth feature, titled World War III, which emerged triumphant at this year’s Venice Film Festival (31 August-10 September).

The Iranian feature won two prestigious accolades, namely the Orizzonti Award for Best Film and the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor, the latter bestowed upon veteran Mohsen Tanabandeh (recently seen in Asghar Farhadi’s hit A Hero).

In detail, the story of World War III revolves around a fifty-something, homeless day labourer called Shakib (played by Tanabandeh), who never got over the loss of his wife and son in an earthquake that occurred years ago.

Over the last couple of years, the man has developed a relationship with a younger deaf and mute woman, Ladan (Mahsa Hejazi). One day, Shakib ends up working on a construction site that turns out to be the set of a film about the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler during WWII.

Shakib is forced to sleep alone in the cold, dark corners of a fake gas chamber, with the task of supervising the film equipment overnight. During the day, he is called to help the crew in any way he can.

The whole project looks unintentionally farcical, characterised by the presence of awful actors and ridiculous staging choices.

The amateurish quality of the production is rendered through small details such as the clear struggles of the Iranian actors to look convincing as Nazis, their clumsy military salutes and the constant embarrassment experienced by the extras who realise how everything looks patchy and inauthentic.

Suddenly, the actor playing Hitler has a heart attack and cannot continue his work. Out of desperation and for some weird reasons, the production team chooses Shakib to play the Fuhrer’s part.

It’s a major twist: the man can sleep in a house, earn a decent wage and, above all, become finally ‘somebody.’ It’s the much-anticipated opportunity of a lifetime. When Ladan learns about Shakib’s unexpected stroke of luck, she escapes her procurers and visits him begging for help. However, Shakib is not allowed to receive any visits and his scheme to hide her goes horribly awry.

A striking still from Houman Seyedi's World War III [photo credit: Iranian Independents]
A striking still from Houman Seyedi's World War III [photo credit: Iranian Independents]

Remarkably, Tanabandeh imbues his role with the right doses of melancholy, anger, sadness and hatred. At first glance, Shakib looks like a simple man who doesn’t care too much about the troubled society he lives in, and he wants to stay away from any conflict. 

However, here Seyedi decides to stage the tragicomic parable of a human being about to explode, building up Shakib’s rage in a very organic fashion.

As we move forward, viewers may realise that Shakib acts as a metaphor for the common citizen who, repressed by a totalitarian regime for a long time, is forced to take action, scream and tell the world about his existential discomfort.

As the rage mounts, however, Shakib seems to lose touch with reality and his fight turns into something ‘anarchic,’ bigger and out of control. The closure of the narrative arc, far from being banal, brings the battle to a close.

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Technically speaking, Director of Photography Payman Shadmanfar delivers striking imagery, creating a visually pleasing contrast between the brightness of the red house (one of the film’s main locations), the chiaroscuros of the poorly lit environments and the paler colours of the surrounding forest.

He chooses to go with hand-held shots and long takes, especially when it comes to the turbulent scenes wherein Shakib confronts Laden’s procurers and the whole crew.

Bamdad Afshar’s engaging score, Farid Nazer Fasihi’s well-crafted visual effects, Mohesn Nasrolahi’s careful work on production design and the helmer’s fast-paced editing are icing on the cake.

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A prolific director, scriptwriter, editor and actor active in Iranian cinema and theatre, with World War III Seyedi demonstrates his expert knowledge of the directing craft and the actor’s work through an elegant mise-en-scene and excellent character development.

The depth of this effort is based on a solid script (penned with Arian Vazir Daftari and Azad Jafarian) and a finely tuned supervision of his thesps, in particular Tanabandeh and Hejazi. Hopefully, Seyedi’s feature will get the distribution it deserves within the festival circuit and in theatres.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni