CAPSULE: Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña write and direct a very different sort of suspense film in the Spanish language. Four strangers, mathematicians, must solve mathematics puzzles against a time limit. Each time they fail to solve the puzzle in time the walls of their room close in on them like the jaws of a vice. Can they solve the individual puzzles and the mystery of the room before being crushed to death? Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Mysteries and thrillers occasionally have side themes of problem solving that become as interesting as the main storyline. In DEAD CALM the main character is thrown off of his yacht mid-ocean and has only another boat, one at the point of capsizing, with which to stay alive. He must save the doomed boat to get back to his own boat where a psychotic holds his wife. The main plot is a clich but the seamanship makes the film fascinating. FERMAT'S ROOM is an Agatha Christie sort of murder mystery about four mathematicians who must solve puzzles to slow the walls of their room from closing in and crushing them. Anyone who has ever been given a tough mathematics exam understands what it is like to try to beat a clock to solve a difficult mathematics problem. It is that experience that is at the center of FERMAT'S ROOM.
Four unnamed mathematicians each receive by mail a puzzle to solve. If they can solve it they will be invited to a nice dinner with other mathematicians. Each will, for the party, be assigned a false name, that of a great mathematician. The party night begins at a very remote house. Their host, Fermat, greets them, but tells them little of why they are here. A phone call summons Fermat away. In Fermat's absence the problems begin, but each time they do not find the answer to a problem in the allotted time the walls of their room crush in on them like the jaws of a very powerful vice. Can they solve the problems and of the mystery of the night before they are compacted.
Mathematicians are generally not the type of people that hold much interest for most movie audiences. However, the nifty plot and the puzzles that keep coming should be a pleasure for any thinking viewer. Perhaps this film owes some of its success to television's "Numb3rs" which has romanticized mathematics in the same way that "CSI" has romanticized forensic detection.
The idea of throwing puzzles into a film is not totally new. Most mystery films are puzzle films. That is what makes them a mystery. In DIE HARD WITH A VENGENCE Bruce Willis's character must solve puzzles to prevent crimes. The problem is given explicitly to the audience to solve them also. CUBE similarly has people in a bizarre sort of trap in which mathematical problems give clues for which cells are dangerous. There is less emphasis there on having the audience participate on solving the questions. I saw FERMAT'S ROOM in near perfect conditions. I watched it on video in a group of four people. None of us were professional mathematicians, but we each had an interest in math. We stopped the film and tried each puzzle. How did we do? I am happy to say we solved every problem. It was not always with the film's solutions, but with a workable solution for each.
That brings me to my major complaint with the film. If these were real mathematicians it is unlikely that any of the problems would give them much trouble for long. A more realistic set of problems would probably have been incomprehensible to most of their audience and certainly would not be so easily solvable. Of course one accepts substitutions in films to make them more comprehensible. Spartacus speaks English and not Latin. Outdoors scenes that are supposed to be at night are sometime obviously shot in the daytime ("day for night"). It is a more enjoyable film if simpler problems are substituted for tougher ones.
This is certainly one of the most enjoyable thrillers of the year. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. One final question is how you would design a room for which the four walls can each crush in without getting in the way of the two contiguous walls. The solution is in the film and worked into the wallpaper pattern in the room. The answer is also in the poster of the film, but not made obvious.
This film is available from Blockbuster by Mail and it has been shown on the Independent Film Channel.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1016301/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/fermat's_room/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper