Judge Joel Pearce has killed for mathematical secrets.
Think inside the box.
We live in an era where "thriller" means epic, complex battles spanning the world or else ugly, violent tales of gruesome torture and suffering. Fermat's Room is a film for those who yearn for a time when thrillers were simply tense games of narrative manipulation. It is an old-fashioned film, but never in a bad way.
Facts of the Case
Four skilled mathematicians receive invitations to a private party by a mysterious host named Fermat. They are each given code names to use at the party. There is Pascal (Santi Millán, Nobody is Perfect) an inventor with a practical approach to the world. Galois (Alejo Sauras, Broken Embraces) is a hotshot young mathematician who has just solved one of the most challenging formulas in math history. He takes an immediate liking to Oliva (Elena Ballesteros, Kasbah), the only woman of the bunch and a theorist with a keen level of focus. Finally, there is Hilbert (Lluís Homar, Black Butterfly), and elderly math expert who loves puzzles and chess.
The party, however, turns out to be a death trap: a quickly shrinking room that will get smaller if they are unable to solve logical puzzles on a tight time frame.
I don't want to talk much about the details of Fermat's Room's plot. It's a film best experienced as blindly as possible, since so much of it depends on the twists and turns of the story.
This proves to be a good thing and a bad thing. Almost everything in the film is logical and plausible, from the construction of the room to the solvability of the puzzles themselves. While many thrillers throw plausibility out the window immediately, directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña work hard to keep the film true to its mathematical and logical premise. They never rely on shocks, violence, or convenient coincidence to move the film forward. It makes for a very refreshing viewing, one that will please viewers who are sick of the endless Saw series.
It also creates a consistent level of suspense. Because the walls are closing in, Fermat's Room never slows down once it gets going. There are few breaks in the tension, and the intensity of the film increases towards the end. It takes a while to get moving, but once it does it has an inertia that I've rarely seen in a film. This is matched by the cinematography and the shot speed. As the film progresses, the camera moves closer and closer to the characters, until we are left almost exclusively with close-ups that pull us into the action. Fermat's Room is a great looking film.
Unfortunately, all of this style comes at some cost. While the math and the logic of the room itself are narratively bulletproof, we never fully believe these characters. Why would they agree to go to this gathering without their cellphones? Why does it take them so long to admit the connections they've had with each other in the past? Why don't they immediately recognize some of the overly familiar logic puzzles? There are a number of nagging questions, but these don't arrive until after the film is over. Thankfully, the experience of the film keeps these questions from our minds as we race to solve the puzzle before the characters do.
I'm quite impressed by the DVD released by MPI. The video transfer captures the vivid reds of the room well, but also captures very different palettes in the outdoor sequences as well as Fermat's nighttime exploration. The film has a distinct graininess, but it looks reasonably good. There's a bit of compression in the dark sequences, but I've seen much worse when it comes to foreign films. The sound is also delivered competently. A few extra features would have been a nice addition, but I'm happy with the strong transfer.
While Fermat's Room will disappoint the gore-thriller crowd, it's a refreshing change from much of what we've seen recently in the way of thrillers. It's small, tightly paced, clever, and claustrophobic. As long as you go in not expecting too much, it's a fun little ride.
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