Review: Subtraction is a stylishly made gripping Iranian thriller

Subtraction is one of the best Iranian films of the year and is a must watch for those who want to see two great actors at their very best.

Subtraction Movie Review

Imagine if there is another version of us in a parallel world somewhere. That very thought is frightening itself, but imagine if that other version lives in our same world. That sounds fine considering the world is big and people can live in different parts of the world. But, what if, that version lives nearby and it is just a matter of time before we bump into them? This is exactly the premise of this film. Subtraction is a brilliantly made, intense, fast-paced sci-fi thriller that keeps you engaged the whole time. Director Mani Haghighi has made a film that is technically magnificent in every regard while telling a story of identity, anxiety and trust in a male dominant hierarchical society.

We meet Farzaneh (Taraneh Alidoosti) who is a pregnant driving instructor in the middle of her driving lesson with a student. They are stuck in traffic and it’s pouring outside. Suddenly, Farzaneh notices something and immediately decides to get out of the car and run to a bus. We see that she is following someone but why? She follows this man to his apartment where she sees him talk to a woman and she is in shock. We don’t know why she is shocked and the scene cuts to a man presumably her husband talking to his dad. At this point, we begin to understand that Farzaneh probably saw her husband Jalal (Navid Mohammadzadeh) talking to another woman and she is probably assuming that he is having an affair.

Subtraction Movie Review

Jalal convinces her by showing concrete proof that he was in another part of the city during the same time and that she should trust him. She believes him and thinks maybe she is hallucinating because nothing made sense to her. Eventually, after finding out the address where the other woman lives, Jalal meets the woman and is stunned. The woman looks exactly like his wife and in conversation with her learns that her husband looks exactly like him. The rest of the film takes us through each doppelganger family’s issues while navigating through this new reality, the feeling of being more in sync with someone else and eventually trying to move on from everything. The two families come from different classes in society which informs their thinking, decisions, and consequences this revelation has on each of them.

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Some questions that are left unanswered and I think it is done so intentionally. The film does not explain at any point how a couple that looked exactly like another couple of the same age existed in the same city. Also, the characters don’t try to investigate that after a certain point. Some of the characters are kept in the dark while others are not. But, all of that is fine because the director’s purpose is to show us what happens when we become a shadow of our former selves. The relationships we choose to be in define how we change over time and in due course it gets exhausting. Everyone goes through tough times, but becoming a completely different person than the person your wife fell in love with and vice versa leads to mistrust, unwanted jealousy and creates this illusion that you are better off being with someone else. Mani Haghighi crafts this film in a way where there is a core story to be told, but at the same time, he slowly brings in some of the social and political elements.

Subtraction Movie Review

Subtraction’s doppelganger premise has been seen previously in films like Enemy (2014) starring Jake Gyllenhaal. However, Subtraction does feel very fresh partly due to the way it was shot. The cinematography by Morteza Najafi is breathtaking and at no point is anything overdone. The shots are very simple with clean imagery and the overall color and tone of the film is very pleasing and keeps the viewer engrossed to the screen. The direction is at another level with a lot of shallow depth-of-field shots and framing done intentionally to direct the viewer to where he wants them to see but there are a lot of subtle details that take place on the side which can be easily missed on first viewing. There are a lot of shots where just the right amount of light is used as a character in some scenes and it just adds to the mystery of the characters and their changing thoughts. The emotionally charged performances by the lead veteran actors Alidoosti and Mohammadzadeh who are on top of their game is a sight to behold. 

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Taraneh Alidoosti who is a fixture in most Asghar Farhadi films, is an actress who has such a wide range in her acting skills that she plays two different people with such ease. Her ever so quick smiles and the way she looks at Jalal when she is playing Bita made up the best scenes in the film for me. She is an inspiration to Iranian women and with each performance, she solidifies herself as one of the best actors from Iran. Navid Mohammadzadeh who plays Jalal and Mohsen had an even bigger challenge as he was portraying two characters who were more different than the women in the film. He did a fantastic job acting like two people who are completely different coming from different strata of society. Although there are moments where you think Haghighi is going to go the socio-political route, that never happens and he sticks to his strength of storytelling. The ending was not easy to predict but it does stick around in your head even after the film ends. The director wants us to remember how easy it is to become someone who sees the world differently in a grim way but we should never forget that there is good in everyone, it is just a matter of seeing it with the right frame of mind.

Subtraction is a reminder that relationships change and evolve as it gets older. Whether or not, it gets better is up to the people in it. But, people need to realize the feelings they had in the beginning still exist somewhere. The question is if you can find it and find happiness with it. The dilemma of moving on versus surviving through it is the answer most people are stuck with. Subtraction is one of the best Iranian films of the year and is a must-watch for those who want to see two great actors at their very best. This film is different from most Iranian films as it sets itself apart which is very necessary if Iranian films have to continue expanding globally in film festivals and gain wider recognition.

Subtraction Movie Review
Review: Subtraction is a stylishly made gripping Iranian thriller
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Founder/Creator of Talking Films. Created Talking films back in 2009 and has been an ardent cinema lover for the past 2 decades.

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