‘World War III’ Review: History Rhymes in Iran’s Tragicomic Oscar Submission

There’s the gig economy, and then there’s a homeless day laborer being asked to play Adolf Hitler in a Holocaust drama. Such is the plight of Shakib (Mohsen Tanabandeh) in Houman Seyedi’s “World War III,” Iran’s submission for the international feature Oscar. It wasn’t shortlisted, but probably would have been were the award given to the film with the greatest ability to keep you guessing as to what form its narrative will eventually take. For that premise, as odd and even zany as it may sound, gives approximately zero indication of how genuinely strange, unexpected and upsetting so much of what happens in “World War III” ultimately is.

Shakib has never acted before and doesn’t resemble Hitler in the slightest, but everyone’s journey to stardom is different. Initially hired to help build and guard the film’s sets — including one of a gas chamber, where he’s allowed to sleep at night — he’s eventually taken on as an extra by necessity, and hastily tasked with replacing the original lead, felled by a medical emergency while filming. Shakib isn’t exactly a willing participant in any of this. He has no interest in stepping in front of the camera and has to be talked into his new duties by the higher-ups, who whittle his beard down to that unfortunate mustache and demand that he sign a number of documents he can’t actually read. In some ways their new leading man, he’s still treated as a pawn — though his quarters are eventually moved to the large house where several key scenes take place.

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Remember that as you watch, for much of the drama in “World War III” hinges on who is and is not allowed on the premises after hours. Any movie that begins with someone telling a story about seeing a dog hit by a car is unlikely to be uplifting, but the deftness with which Seyedi’s dark satire slowly morphs into tragedy has a gut-punch quality to it for which most viewers will be unprepared. The tonal shift “World War III” undergoes at roughly the midway point recasts everything that occurred before
it in a darker light, but even that isn’t its final form. It’s difficult to give a sense of how twisty the plot is without veering into spoilers, but know that Seyedi doesn’t reveal the last trick up his sleeve until the credits roll.

That’s in large part thanks to Tanabandeh, whose riveting performance gives shape to Seyedi’s ideas. Initially something of a cipher, he answers no when asked if he knows who Hitler was — who better to portray the face of evil than a blank canvas whose unveiling in the role, mustache and all, is played for laughs? Seyedi seems to be asking whether oppressor and oppressed are intrinsic identities or merely roles we play when opportunity arises. Here again Shakib wouldn’t have an answer, but the implications of his ambivalence are just as troubling.

“World War III” premiered a few months ago in Venice’s Orizzonti strand, where it won Best Film and Best Actor. The same festival also unveiled “No Bears,” from Seyedi’s embattled compatriot Jafar Panahi: To say that Iran has a fraught relationship with some of its most revered filmmakers would be putting it extremely lightly. While Seyedi isn’t as overtly political here as the likes of Panahi, he’s still quite bold: One hopes his film will receive Stateside distribution. Whether censored or celebrated by its government, daring work like this deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.

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