Venice 2022 review: World War III (Houman Seyedi)

“In the hands of a more skilled screenwriting team World War III could have been a sharp character study of a man in over his head as the film descends into tragedy.”

Character motivation is the reason behind a character’s behavior in a story. If a motivation is too weak, then character behavior will feel contrived and the viewer won’t feel as invested in the conflict as they should. I cannot help but think of how the weak character motivation behind Shakib, the protagonist and antihero of World War III, has made the film itself a lot less compelling. Shakib’s actions feel like they’re created in service of a plot, rather than the other way around.

We first meet Shakib (played by Mohsen Tanabandeh) on a construction site. As a homeless day laborer looking for his next temporary gig, Shakib is in luck. The site he is working on today has turned into a film production set. They are filming a movie about the Holocaust. The film’s producer Nosrati (Navid Nosrati) is looking for someone who would be able to stay overnight, stand guard over the film equipment, and help out in any way in the kitchen and on set. Shakib, who has no family (his wife and son died in an earthquake years ago) and no personal obligations, fulfils all of the qualifications needed for this job.

World War III begins as a dry, dark comedy and starts off with promise. Even though Shakib is a laborer, he and the other illiterate laborers on set unexpectedly get drafted as extras. Assuming the role of concentration camp inmates, they are put into striped pyjamas and corralled into a gas chamber to shoot the gassing scenes. The claustrophobic extras, uninformed of the film’s historical setting and backdrop, pound on the doors, desperate to flee the premises.

Shakib’s job is thankless. At night, he sleeps in the production set’s gas chamber. When it rains, the ceiling leaks and Shakib can barely sleep. Shakib complains to Hasan (Louyi Seyfi), the production assistant, about the leaky ceiling but nothing gets done. In an odd twist of fate, however, one day the actor who plays Hitler suddenly collapses from a heart attack. Before Shakib knows it, he is enlisted to audition for the role of Hitler, gets chosen for the role, and upgrades to the Red House where Hasan had been staying. Showing off to Ladan (Mahsa Hejazi), a sex worker he has befriended, all of the extravagant décor and furnishings of the Red House, he confides to her that he is now living in the mansion and no longer needs to do manual labor. When Ladan finds herself in dire circumstances, as it appears that her employer, Farshid, is trying to overwork her by drugging her with a syringe, she asks Ladan if she could stay with him for a few days. Shakib agrees, even though visitors are not allowed to stay with him overnight.

This is where the film’s plausibility begins to fall apart. Why would Shakib, a day laborer with no job prospects before this opportunity came along, risk everything for a sex worker he barely knows? Writer-director Houman Seyedi does not answer this question nor does he give us any insight into Shakib’s mindset. In the few scenes that are supposed to establish Shakib’s close bond with Ladan, we see Ladan disclose her feelings for Shakib and her wish to have a house with him and a baby of their own. At one point, Ladan even confesses to Shakib that her allegations against Farshid – trying to drug her – were all a lie. But Shakib doesn’t feel shocked or betrayed. Instead, we see him with glimmers of hope in his eyes, looking at Shakib as a possible form of redemption.

In the hands of a more skilled screenwriting team (Seyedi cowrote it with two other people, Arian Vazir Daftari and Azad Jafarian) World War III could have been a sharp character study of a man in over his head as the film descends into tragedy. But Ladan is such a thin, lacklustre character, and Shakib is not given enough character motivation as to why he is willing to risk it all. We see him hide her, ferociously, underneath the wooden floorboards every time Farshid comes knocking on the door of the Red House. But whatever Shakib sees in her remains elusive. And so, by the time of the film’s climax (illustrating the tragic consequences of Shakib’s hiding Ladan from Farshid and the film crew) and denouement (depicting Shakib’s thirst for retribution, following the tragic climax, and his complete character arc as victim turned perpetrator), I had already checked out, as any emotional investment I had in Shakib’s life was long gone.