By Matt Singer
[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]
Four Spanish mathematicians convene for an evening of puzzle-solving at the house of a man named Fermat. But almost as soon as they arrive, their mysterious host is called away to attend to his ailing daughter. A PDA rings, giving the group a question they’re told they must solve in just one minute. When they don’t, the walls of Fermat’s room inch towards one another. Now, they must answer the riddles while trying to find an escape before they’re all squeezed to death. In other words, “Fermat’s Room” is sort of “Saw” for arithmetic dorks.
The characters are all supposed to be geniuses, but the problems they have to solve require less advanced calculus than your average brain teaser from “Die Hard With a Vengeance” lots of trick questions and doors you have to choose between or vessels of different sizes. That’s probably beneath what these sort of people normally do with their brains, but it’s a decision that makes sense from an audience perspective; if writer/directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo SopeÃ±a were really to put four math professors to work solving hardcore theorems, viewers would probably die out of sheer boredom well before the characters on screen do.
The characters all act pleasant and innocent enough at first, but impending doom in these sorts of movies has a habit of revealing people’s darkest secrets. So while there might not seem to be a reason for Fermat (Federico Luppi) to want to destroy Pascal (Santi MillÃ¡n), Galois (Alejo Sauras), Oliva (Elena Ballesteros) or Hilbert (LluÃs Hobar), revelations that they’re all some combination of liars, thieves, adulterers or murderers are inevitable. Three out of four are also remarkably good-looking as far as mathematicians go. Heck, three out of four of them are remarkably good-looking as far as models go. But, hey, that’s moviemaking for you.
From the moment the four walls begin closing in with the aid of “Poseidon hydraulic presses,” “Fermat’s Room” unfolds roughly in real time, and we only leave the location occasionally to check in on Fermat’s journey to a hospital. Co-directors Piedrahita and SopeÃ±a rely on the puzzles, the arguments between the prisoners, the deceptions and revelations to keep you on edge, though visually, the movie suffers from a lack of establishing shots. Piedrahita and SopeÃ±a use tighter and tighter close-ups to convey the claustrophobia, and there’s lots of cutaways to the corners of the room as they grind ever closer, breaking light fixtures or knocking pictures off the wall, but after the room starts to shrink, there’s only a handful of shots wide enough to give us a full sense of its diminishing size. More images of that ilk would give us a better grasp of how small the room is and how little time the hottie nerds have left at any given point, which would greatly improved “Fermat’s” tension.
Like most movies about people stuck in inescapable death traps, the ultimate solution to “Fermat’s Room” is, frankly, a little dopey, a particularly egregious problem for a movie about people who are allegedly really, really smart. But for most of its run, it moves briskly as a fun whodunit (and, I suppose, as a howdoit) and Piedrahita and SopeÃ±a’s work manages to be sinister without being grisly which should please audiences weary of overly gory horror movies and the film is dotted with little touches that encourage careful viewing (dig the cheeky pattern of the wallpaper). It could still be a little smarter though. The movie doesn’t insult your intelligence, but it doesn’t exactly tax it either.
[Photos: “Fermat’s Room,” Notro Films, 2007]
For more on “Fermat’s Room” (albeit in Spanish), check out the official site here.