Venice 2022

World War III review – black comedy of anarchy and social responsibility

Film sets are made into fascistic breeding grounds for chaos in Iranian filmmaker Houman Seyedi’s bleakly funny meta-movie

Maybe Timothèe Chalamet was right. The Bones and All star raised eyebrows when he told journalists in Venice this month that “societal collapse is in the air.” Chalamet might’ve just come out of Houman Seyedi’s drama World War III, which took home the best film and best actor awards in the festival’s Orrizonti sidebar section.

Seyedi’s film is about a penniless labourer who lost his wife and child in a deadly earthquake, and finds himself accidentally cast as Hitler in a shoddy, schlocky World War II movie shot in the countryside. Hired at first to help build sets for just 300,000 tomans (£6) a day, Shakib (Mohsen Tanabandeh) is picked out of a crowd and ordered to play the Führer. With a little makeup and some subject grooming choices, he isn’t bad at it.

Seyedi takes a black comedy premise and injects bleakness in abundance. At a time when, to put it delicately, on-set safety measures are receiving renewed attention, Shakib is forced to navigate outright danger on the slapdash production. More important, still, are the questions World War III asks about the social responsibility of filmmakers. If Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Camera Buff explored the moral extremities a home video obsessive will go to — tellingly, perhaps, Josh Safdie has a Camera Buff poster above his bed — World War III probes the impact of directors’ oft-fetishised uncaring attitude on those in front of the camera. When Shakib’s partner Ladan (Mahsa Hejazi) visits the set and hopes to stay with him, the unexpected movie star must make adjustments to his own careful narrative. Soon enough, questions of personal safety arise once again.

It’s no surprise Seyedi quotes scholar of fascism Hannah Arendt in his press notes. In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt posited that fascist societies, in chasing total control, ultimately breed anarchy. The same might be said for a film set. Hokey Hitler as Shakib’s star-making turn is not just a springboard for how kitsch the filmmaking process can be (think Kate Winslet in Extras). It’s a handy metaphor for the greater-good sentiment so common on rushed, cash-strapped productions. When the relentless pursuit of order causes acts of savagery on Shakib’s film, he must forge his own, suitably anarchic response.

Tanabandeh, one of Iran’s best-known character actors, anchors Seyedi’s suitably unpredictable film with a formidable performance in the lead role (you might recognise him as moneylender Bahram in Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, a recent highlight in Iranian cinema). In a movie that demands a grounded, relatable central performance to sell the sheer chaos around him, Tanabandeh more than delivers. It helps that Seyedi, World War III’s director, producer and co-writer, seems to know exactly what he wants to say. The message may not be a happy one, but death and destruction can make for a great story.

World War III was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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