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  • TBC
  • Mystery, Thriller
  • 2007
  • 88 mins

Fermat's Room

Fermat's Room

Synopsis

Deadly pressure mounts on a quartet of mathematicians, in this ingenious feature debut from Spanish TV writing-directing team Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeño

About

Four mathematicians walk into a room... It sounds like the set-up for a cheap joke, but when that room turns out to be a riddling deathtrap like the one in Vincenzo Natali's Cube (1997) or the original Saw (2004), then the four (and we along with them) are thrown into something altogether more gripping and claustrophobic.

Of course, while mathematicians are no less cutthroat than any other community when the stakes are high, the very nature of their calling makes them better than most at calculating - and manipulating - the odds with extreme elegance, while a professional leaning towards insanity (witness A Beautiful Mind) practically guarantees that the game will follow an unpredictable course. So with their feature debut Fermat's Room, writing-directing team Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeño have hit upon a winning thriller formula that they follow through to its logical conclusion with precise economy and not a little head-twisting delirium.

Summoned by written invitations-cum-challenges from a stranger calling himself Fermat, the four mathematicians assemble at a remote location where they are to be presented with "the most ingenious, unedited enigma ever set out" which they can discuss using assigned pseudonyms. 'Galois' (Alejo Sauras) is a cocky young lady's man whose written resolution of Goldbach's Conjecture, "the most difficult problem in the history of mathematics", was stolen from his rooms shortly before it was due to be published. Middle-aged 'Hilbert' (Lluís Homar) is a rakish if depressed lover of puzzles. Practical Pascal (Santi Millán) is an engineer and inventor with a barely concealed drinking problem. Beautiful Oliva (Elena Ballesteros) gives little away.

Fermat himself (Federico Luppi) is the last to enter the richly appointed room in an isolated barn and the first to leave, called off on urgent business by his mobile phone. Then a riddle appears on a PDA and as the room begins slowly but inexorably to contract, its walls being pushed from the outside by a quartet of massive hydraulic presses, the four guests find their space and time running out as they race to solve a series of diabolical brain-teasers (to slow down the walls) while also trying to work out who they all really are, why someone would want to kill them (and in such a convoluted manner), and whether there is any way out.

It would be easy to reduce Fermat's Room to its high-concept premise but that would be to overlook the stylishly concise manner in which it is executed. The performances are master-classes in ambiguous glances and inscrutable gestures, ensuring that every twist and turn in the narrative both elicits genuine surprise and makes perfect (retrospective) sense. The room itself is a marvel of production design, with its chessboard floor, its blood-red walls and its geometrically patterned wallpaper that illustrates more clearly than verbal exposition ever could how a four-sided room can be made to shrink in on itself. The musical score combines with the creaking and buckling sounds of the room to make palpable the crushing tension of the situation.

Then there is the screenplay, which like any good enigma presents what seems, on the face of it, to be crazily paradoxical information, and then defies us to locate any specific flaws in its hermetic logic. For the most part its different pieces fall into place with a watertight cogency that will withstand multiple viewings - although some viewers may be left wondering how the increasingly elaborate and long-winded solutions could be entered into, let alone recognised by, a handheld PDA device. Still, the dialogue, though always in the service of the plot, is full of gallows wit and little human touches so that we are never allowed to forget that every formula, no matter how rarefied and abstract, is ultimately linked to the living, breathing world of our fancies and foibles. Maths, you see, is not just in the mind.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Josep Minguell, Federico Luppi, Elena Ballesteros, Santi Millán, David Fernández, V??ctor Benjumea, Helena Carrión, Alejo Sauras, Núria Badia
  • Director: Luis Piedrahita, Rodrigo Sopeña
  • Screen Writer: Rodrigo Sopeña, Luis Piedrahita
  • Producer: José Maria Irisarri, Adolfo Blanco
  • Composer: Federico Jusid, Ale Marti

In a nutshell

As elegant and addling as the enigma(s) at its core, this claustrophobic thriller will keep viewers conjecturing right up to its humanist solution.

by Anton Bitel

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