Wednesday, May 10, 2023

World War III, at UCLA’s Celebration of Iranian Cinema

In a way, it is pretty impressive that this film even exists. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made Holocaust denial part of the government ideology, launching the first of three national Holocaust-mocking cartoon competitions. Yet, this film would lose much of its bite if viewers bought into the Iranian government’s poisonous delusions. The drama escalates precipitously among the crew working on possibly the stilted and tone-deaf Holocaust film-within-the-film in Houman Seyedi’s World War III, which screens as part of the 2023 UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.

Shakib is a middle-aged wreck of a man, who found comfort in the arms of Ladan, a deaf sex-worker, after his wife and child were killed in the earthquake. He wants to start a new life with her, but the brothel owner considers Ladan his property and Shakib lacks even two-thousand tomans to rub together. As a day-laborer, he helps construct the concentration camp set to be used for an independent Holocaust film, directed by Rastegar, a pretentious director obviously inspired by several Iranian auteurs (including Kiarostami, but he completely lacks Panahi’s down-to-earth humility).

By saving the producer from a bonk on the head, Shakib gets to stay on, first as the nightwatchman and then as one of the extras. Much to his confusion, Shakib gets a further promotion when the thesp playing Hitler has a heartache. Initially, Shakib hardly looks like a dead-ringer, but the makeup brings out something Chaplinesque, circa
The Great Dictator, in him. However, he requires a lot of direction, because Shakib has never heard of Hitler (in his defense, in Iran, how would he have?).

From there, the drama gets wildly crazy and brutally intense. By Western standards, Seyedi’s use of Holocaust themes are daring, pushing the boundaries of good taste, but it is clear he understands their significance better than his country’s leaders. It is definitely edgy, but it also highlights the fictional film crew’s total lack of awareness or empathy. It is hard to watch and even harder to miss the point when they force an intimidated group of extras to strip down in the gas chamber set. Of course, none of this would make any sense to anyone who denies the events the film-within-the-film recreates.

The emotional violence in
WWIII steadily escalates, in a manner very similar to the films of Farhadi. However, Seyedi (and co-screenwriters Arian Vazirdaftari and Azad Jafarian) have created an extreme set of circumstances, well outside the course of ordinary life, in marked contrast to Farhadi’s realistic domestic dramas that spin out of control.

Mohsen Tanabandeh gives a career performance as Shakib, eclipsing probably his best-known performance (internationally) in Farhadi’s
A Hero. He suffers like Job, but his cratering arc is much more believably, horrifyingly human. Tanabandeh vividly and viscerally takes the audience on a descent to rock-bottom and below.

Like all the best Iranian films,
WWIII is an exhausting viewing experience for the soul. Yet, Seyedi adds a surreal dimension that is entirely unique to this film. Honestly, you cannot say you’ve seen enough to categorically address Iranian cinema, until you have seen WWIII. It is a further minor miracle it was chosen as Iran’s International Oscar submission, because it is hard to imagine the powers-that-be reacting favorably to it, but for audiences, it is truly something they have never seen before. Very highly recommended for discerning cineastes, World War III screens Friday (5/12) at the Billy Wilder Theater.