January 27, 2023

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‘World War III’ review: Iran’s bold, surprising Oscar submission

3 min read

There’s the gig economy, and then a homeless day laborer being asked to play Adolf Hitler in a Holocaust drama. Such is the plight of Shakib (Mohsen Tanabandeh) in Houman Saidi’s “World War III,” Iran’s submission for the International Feature Oscar. It wasn’t shortlisted, but perhaps given the film with the most ability to predict what form its narrative would ultimately take. As for this premise, as strange and even pretentious as it may sound, it gives almost zero indication of how truly strange, unexpected and disturbing what ultimately happens in “World War III” is.

Shakib has never acted before and doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Hitler, but everyone’s journey to stardom is different. Initially hired to help build and guard the film’s set – including a gas chamber, where he is allowed to sleep at night – he is eventually taken on as an extra, and quickly assigned to replace the original lead, felled by a medical emergency. is Filming time. Shakib is not exactly a participant in any of these. He has no interest in stepping in front of the camera and has to talk about his new duties to the higher-ups, who shave his beard down to that unfortunate mustache and demand that he sign a lot of documents that he can’t actually read. . In some ways their new leading man, he is still treated as a pawn – although his quarters are eventually moved to a larger house where several key scenes take place.

Keep in mind that while you’re watching, the hours for most “World War III” dramas depend on who is and isn’t allowed on the premises. Any movie that begins with telling the story of a dog being hit by a car is unlikely to thrive, but the skill with which Syedi’s dark satire slowly transforms into tragedy has a gut-punch quality that most viewers will be unprepared for. The tonal shift “World War III” takes place at roughly the midway point recapitulating everything that happened before
It’s in a darker light, but even that’s not its final form. It’s hard to explain how much the plot twists without running into spoilers, but know that Syed doesn’t reveal the last trick up his sleeve until the credits roll.

This is thanks in large part to Tanabandeh, whose raving performance embodies Sayedi’s concept. Initially something like a cipher, he doesn’t answer, when he knows who Hitler was – who better to paint the face of evil than a blank canvas whose role, mustache and all, is played for laughs? Sayedi seems to think that oppressor and oppressed are internal identities or we merely play roles when given the opportunity. Here again Shakib will have no answer, but the implications of his disagreement are just as worrying.

“World War III” premiered at Venice’s Orizonti Strand a few months ago, where it won best film and best actor. The same festival also unveiled “No Bears,” from Sayedi’s embattled compatriot Zafar Panahi: To say that Iran’s most revered filmmaker has had a fraught relationship would be an understatement. Although Saidi isn’t as overtly political as Panahi here, he’s still quite daring: one hopes his film gets stateside distribution. Whether censored by the government or celebrated, a bold act like this deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience.

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