WORLD WAR III, an Iranian slapstick thriller unveils flowing terror

Director Houman Seyyedi, who produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Arian Vazirdaftari and Azad Jafarian, follows a widowed, homeless day laborer named Shakib as he works tirelessly to spend his wages in a brothel.

There is, however, more than meets the eye. Shakib lost his wife and son in an earthquake which he survived. The whole village blamed him for letting his family die under the rubble.

Uprooted from his village, homeless and without a stable income, he lives in a friend’s dilapidated shop. Going to the brothel, he remains loyal to only one girl, a mute prostitute named Ladan. Shakib maintains contact, even when he is working. Ladan remains his only lifeline in a senseless world and an aimless existence after suffering the crushing loss of his family.

When his hard work lands him a steady job on a construction site, fortunes begin to turn in Shakib’s favor. The construction site is a film set for a historical film about the atrocities of World War II. The protagonist quickly transitions from lugging wood to the camera as a prisoner herded into a gas chamber.


The day laborers become extras in the Holocaust film which seems to take a rather unconventional creative license. Seyyedi suddenly shifts from poverty and existentialist porn to meta-movie satire, defusing the masochistic vibe of a particularly dark social realist drama.

Curiously, the director pushes the limits of comedy even further when the actor playing Adolf Hitler collapses on the set. And the producers set up an impromptu casting on the spot with available extras.

The illiterate worker Shakib soon dons the infamous Nazi mustache and insignia. The director of the film chooses him as a replacement despite his protests. Being the leader comes with perks. He is transferred from guarding water-leaking gas chambers to a Nazi elite prop house, where he is able to spend nights.

Seyyedi once again reverses the gender switch as Shakib reveals his favorite prostitute and the only confidante he has been promoted to, in terms of career and accommodation. Ladan comes knocking on Shakib’s proverbial door like a damsel in distress.

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The appropriation of the damsel in distress narrative would be a bit on the nose and cliche if Seyyedi didn’t once again flip his storytelling switch, which he does, revealing the heart of World War III as a socio-political drama.

Crowd extortion, Ladan’s possibly not-so-virtuous motives, and Shakib’s lying to cover up Ladan’s forbidden presence on the Snowball of Pledges, putting Shakib under pressure. Ultimately, the protagonist is led down a rabbit hole of radicalization.

Seyyedi puts the pedal to the metal in the third act in transformative revival thriller fashion of someone with nothing left to lose and goes into a frenzy (in full Hitler costume).

Seyyedi responds to a meandering plot in his darkly comical allegory. Its setups have longer timeframes, but it offers payback in a take-home comic. The writers’ collective is acutely aware of cliches and possible narrative patterns and plays them wisely as they contribute to the drama of totalitarian oppression.

World War III leaps from the naturalism of social realism to melodrama as Seyyedi uses a theatrical approach to dramatize Shakib’s downfall. As a homeless worker, Shakib is always a tool of someone else’s agency.

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After gaining a superfluous slice of privilege, he becomes an even bigger pawn with an illusion of control over the situation. World War III turns into the slapstick of a moral thriller as the virtuous protagonist tries to make the right choices while being extracted for personal benefit from every possible direction.

Mohsen Tanabandeh excels in the lead role of Shakib as he transforms from an illiterate wage slave into a vengeful anti-hero. Seyyedi orchestrates Shakib reclaiming his agency in a cinematic trope of a rebirth in a dark version of himself, in the territory of reimagined Greek tragedy.

World War III unfolds like an Iranian version of Dostoyevsky The idiot with Seyyedi putting an ironic finishing touch. The Iranian director has transformed a class thriller that would otherwise end up being too didactic into an absurd meta-fictional tragi-comic genre parable.

The film won the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor and the Orizzonti Award for Best Film at the 79th Venice Film Festival.

World War III

  • Houman Seyyedi
  • Arian Vazirdaftari
  • Azad Jafari
  • Mohsen Tanabandeh
  • Mahsa Hejazi
  • Neda Jebraeili

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