With the current fascination with all things mathematical, brainy and coded, a movie like Fermat’s Room is no oddity and it stands out less than it might have done 10 years ago. Having said that, it remains a tense and intelligent – if claustrophobic – thriller.
The ‘puzzle-inside-a-puzzle’ structure depicts four people in a race against time to save themselves. I spoil nothing by revealing the main plot, since you can actually see it on the film poster!
Four eminent mathematicians are summoned by a man called Fermat to a remote spot to play a game, each with a different alias and none allowed to take their mobile phones with them. You might already smell a rat, but it seems the average challenge-embracing mathematic genius cannot. The partcipants are all sent a numerical riddle they are required to solve, a device which is as simple as it is effective in massaging our characters’ intellectual egos: only those who will solve it can go and play this mysterious game where they will be posed an über-challenging enigma. When they don’t solve the puzzles quickly enough, the walls start closing in on them – literally!
The film succeeds in drawing in the audience: you find yourself trying to solve the puzzles and looking for clues at every turn – it does not matter if you’re a mathematical whiz or not. You start making mental notes of everything and try to find a link with all the clues, which means everything is a potential clue.
Luckily, the enigmas posed to the four mathematicians are solvable and accessible even to the layman, so the average viewer does not feel too stupid. They need not be unsolvable, as the tension and time-limit built-in with every puzzle slows everybody’s mental capacities down, and they appear to be more difficult than they are. In fact, it is less a movie about maths than it is about suspense and secrets, and whether or not those secrets can unlock the key as to why those people were summoned in the first place. The biggest challenge is whether or not those personal barriers will actually come down and allow the puzzle to be solved before the walls close in on them…
The comparisons with Saw should not mislead you, here the tension and the pressure are more effective than the gore, and the characters have a chance to peel off some of their masks to reveal more about themselves.
The nod to Cube is obvious, much as with 10 Little Indians, and it is interesting to see such a successfully tense and taut movie from two authors, Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña, who regularly write for TV.
The characters are all evenly-scripted, apart from the female mathematician, whom we only see for the first time when she shows up for the get-together. They are slight stereotypes (the totty math genius, the eccentric elderly loner, the young rock star type, the introverted one in a mid-life crisis) but they work, and this isn’t an introspective film about individual characters after all.
The mise-en-scène is very effective, with saturated yellow and red hues which become the predominant colours in the confined environment where the story takes place, and a subtle camera-work which increases in close-ups and frantic movements as the walls get dangerously closer to our captive guests.
Spain has consistently delivered intriguing filmic gems, it is not surprise this is a Spanish movie. With good acting, a tight script and well executed, you won’t notice the few holes here and there, and you’lll enjoy a pretty good thriller to boot.
Fermat’s Room is on general release now.