“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Houman Seyedi’s World War III starts with this quote oft-attributed to Mark Twain. One of the four Iranian titles premiering at Venice this year and the director’s sixth feature, the Orizzonti section finalist proves a bracing slow-burner that leaves you gaping by the time the credits start to roll.
While history may actually be repeating itself in the country’s film industry – with the arrest of Mohammad Rasoulof, 2020 Golden Bear winner with There is No Evil, and Jafar Panahi, who has won top awards at Venice, Berlin, and Locarno – the epigraph of World War III certainly holds true for its story.
Shakib, played by Mohsen Tanabandeh from A Hero (2021), is a homeless day labourer who lost his wife and son in an earthquake and who now seeks comfort in the presence and service of Ladan (Mahsa Hejazi), a deaf and mute sex worker. While working on a construction site one day that turns out to be a set for a film about the Holocaust, he and fellow workers are dragged away by the crew to fill in as extras. Although the producer Nosrati (Navid Nosrati) disapproves, the director sees something in Shakib’s sheepish demeanor and offers him a much bigger role and a higher salary. After sharing the happy news with Ladan during one of their regular video calls, Shakib unexpectedly finds her on his doorstep, on the run from her pimp Farshid (Morteza Khanjani).
Tensions rise and history rhymes as Shakib attempts to hide Ladan – on the film set where he is allowed to stay temporarily – from both the increasingly dictatorial film crew and Farshid, who wants 150 million rials (£3,000) for Ladan’s freedom. About two-thirds into the story, it becomes apparent that these “rhyming” parallels are building up to something, only that one can’t tell or won’t guess what it is.
Mohsen Tanabandeh excels as Shakib, conveying the character’s emotions that jump from one end of the spectrum to another. The character of Ladan is also brought to life brilliantly by Mahsa Hejazi, who previously appeared in the 2021 horror drama Zalava which won the grand prize at Venice Critics’ Week. The most chaotic scene of the film, shortly following a turning point in the story, is superbly believable. Not as action-packed as those in Seyedi’s previous film Sheeple but equally well-sustained, the display of havoc is a successful collective effort with effortlessly natural dialogue.
Payman Shadmanfar, who also worked on Seyedi’s Sound and Fury (2016) and Sheeple (2018) as a cinematographer, carefully plans memorable frames, as can be seen in one shot filmed through ambulance car doors. Another shot with Shakib standing in a doorway with only his silhouette figure visible to the camera becomes a vivid example of visual storytelling. Bamdad Afshar’s sporadic, stirring cello tunes add greatly to the emotional octave and are even better and more expressive for their rarity.
By far the most excellent aspects of World War III, however, are its script and its execution. Seyedi’s is a world in which almost everyone is a bully to those “below” them. In its depiction of precarious living conditions, its exploration of power, and how those who hold it justify and legitimize it, World War III has a universal resonance and, dare I say it, has the makings of the next Parasite.
The screenplay credits showcase some of the best in Iranian cinema. This utterly unpredictable, original story is written by Seyedi himself, alongside Arian Vazirdaftari, whose directorial debut Without Her is premiering at Venice in the Orizzonti Extra sidebar, and Azad Jafarian, who was the story consultant to Saeed Roustayi’s Palme d’Or nominee Leila’s Brothers. The trio has a few tricks up their sleeves and the story receives comparable execution in Seyedi’s direction and editing of great subtlety and economy.
Bound to surprise audiences and bag awards, World War III is a film that makes you look forward to the next film that rhymes, if not repeats, its brilliance.
Written by Amarsanaa Battulga