Iranian filmmaker Mani Haghighi was due to present his new film Subtraction at London Film Festival this year, after screening it earlier at Toronto (TIFF), but was stopped from leaving Iran and had his passport confiscated. His great loss was still the London festival audience’s gain, as this important narrative from this region continued to be admired for its insightful factual elements and important voices.

Unlike Haghighi’s dark comedy Pig in 2018, his latest offering is a somber, Hitchcockian-styled thriller, complete with intrigue, mystery, malice and near continual pouring rain. Fascinating still is the backstory for Subtraction‘s plot: According to Variety, Haghighi was stunned to find a doppelgänger of his adult self in an old photograph on display at a mosque in southwest Iran, where the Iran-Iraq war took place. At the time the photo was taken though, Haghighi was just a boy of 10 years old. Hence, Subtraction was born out of the filmmaker’s initial shock then dread of how living in Tehran means accepting “events that seem completely unreasonable to you” – much like his characters in this film.

The plot follows driving instructor Farzaneh (Taraneh Alidoosti), who is with a student in her car one day in the Tehran traffic and pouring rain, when she discovers husband Jalal (Navid Mohammadzadeh) walking along the street when he should be out of town on business. Stunned, she decides to follow him to a strange apartment, suspecting him of having an affair. The couple’s relationship is already strained as recently pregnant Farzaneh is unable to take her psychoactive drugs for anxiety because of her condition and the harm it could do to the unborn child.

Unable to believe Jalal’s protested innocence, she asks her father to investigate. He too, is stunned after returning from a visit to the apartment and tries to encourage Farzaneh to forget the whole affair. Curiosity gets the better of her, and she visits the apartment, only for the door to be opened by a woman who is a clone of her. Bizarrely, Bita, a mother to a young son, is also married to a man who looks identical to Jalal, but has a bitter temper. This unbelievable scenario prompts all kinds of questions and confrontations, and leads to one fatal event that will change the lives of both couples.

Haghighi’s film would not work without the powerful central performance by Alidoosti playing both women, who come from different socio-economic backgrounds but are dealing with their own relationship problems. These issues are amplified by their spouses, with an equally impressive turn by Mohammadzadeh who has to switch between compassionate Jalal and the darker, violent, frown-etched doppelgänger Mohsen – who has recently assaulted his superior at work.

What is highly compelling to witness is the way Alidoosti’s actual facial expressions, posture and makeup alter between an embittered Farzaneh and a fresher-looking and braver Bita who finds strength in being there for her son. Such is the subtle difference in portrayal that you could be forgiven for thinking initially that both parts are played by actual twins. In addition, the superb filming techniques Haghighi has adopted by constantly varying shot sizes, angles and eyelines never give the game away either. The result is utterly believable and flawless. In fact, the couples may be doppelgängers, but they are polar opposites in temperament – or Bita and Jalal might be deemed the ‘better versions’ of the four, as Haghighi’s colour palette also alters to depict the mood at that moment in time.

As ever, such a film shines an intriguing light on social and economic issues in contemporary Iran too, from female entrepreneurialism (Farzaneh is her own boss) to traditional domestic exigencies (Bita’s serves her family’s needs). There is even a reference to how the state deals with drug dependency as Farzaneh struggles to function – or conform. Haghighi also refreshingly shows a whole spectrum of male behaviour, not just the perceived macho type, but the positive to the negative is explored using Jalal, Mohsen and the father figure. The course of action in seeking forgiveness after Mohsen’s assault on his older work colleague is also a fascinating matter of honour and decency.

Once again, Subtraction shows Haghighi’s work varies in context, style and genre, making him a scintillating Iranian filmmaker to watch. This is definitely one of his finest to date for writing, acting and production values, as well as depth of character study.

Previous articleEmpire of Light Review – LFF 2022
Next articleWhite Noise Review – LFF 2022
Fierce film reviewer and former BFI staffer, Lisa is partial to any Jack Nicholson flick. She also masquerades as a broadcast journalist, waiting for the day she can use her Criminology & Criminal Justice-trained mind like a female Cracker.
subtraction-reviewSubtraction shows Haghighi's work varies in context, style and genre, making him a scintillating Iranian filmmaker to watch. This is definitely one of his finest to date for writing, acting and production values, as well as depth of character study.