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Fermat’s Room: A Tightly Woven Dance

May 20, 2012

There is a true land and a false land.  Those in the true land always tell the truth. Those in the false land, always lie.  In Fermat’s room, the difference between the two exists within the 4 walls of one shrinking room, where four mathematicians have been brought together by a mysterious host to solve a great enigma.  Once inside the meticulously designed room, tension mounts as the walls begin to close in around them.  As time and space run out, the four participants must solve complex riddles while contemplating the mystery and motive behind their predicament.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Luis Piedrahita’s Fermat’s Room is a fast paced, clever exercise in desperation, studying man’s intellectual capacity under incomprehensible duress.  Fermat’s room is not for everyone, though, and Piedrahita reveals as much when over black screen, a voice says, “Do you know what prime numbers are?  If you don’t you should leave now.”  Somewhat tongue in cheek, this is a warning to viewers of the mind boggling mathematical madness that will follow.

Let’s meet our participants.  Galios, a young star, has just solved a 250 year old problem, Goldbach’s Conjecture, but discovers that his flat has been ransacked and the solution stolen.  Aging and suicidal Hilbert, while playing chess with a close friend, reveals the receipt of an invitation from Fermat.  He must solve the riddle on the page in order to qualify for the event.

Pascal, alone in the library, struggles to unravel the same riddle.  Somehow, a mundane line from a librarian unlocks the mystery.  And last, we meet Olivo; pulling up to the isolated lake, as directed, on her moped.  “I thought we weren’t supposed to know each other,” she exclaims.  This is one of a few not so subtle reminders that things aren’t exactly as they appear.

Like so many movies before it, (Ten Little Indians, The Haunting, Clue) Fermat’s Room asks its audience to subvert rational thought and accept that these people are so desperate for a new challenge that they willingly ignore all better judgment.  “The more you study logic,” Hilbert says, “the more you value coincidence.”  Piedrahita hopes this will be enough to satisfy his audience, and for most of the movie, it is.

how’s your calculus?

Like Natali’s Cube and Aranofsky’s Pi, Fermat’s Room utilizes its confined space as an additional character. The film’s greatest moment comes not from solving a riddle, but from an attempt to beat the room. And as we watch from high above, the dance taking place below is beautiful and awe inspiring.

Piedrahita keeps things moving.  The riddles come one after another. The walls move in, crushing furniture, smashing lights. The dialogue is fast, complex, and tightly woven; words and phrases uttered early on appear later with greater impact.  But the real fun is in watching the tortured geniuses struggle against time to solve the riddles.

Unfortunately, the films greatest strength is also its biggest flaw. Once the final riddle is solved, the room suddenly falls flat.  The end is somewhat anticlimactic; almost ruining what is otherwise a taut psychological thriller.  But Piedrahita accomplishes his final goal, posing a question most of us would rather not consider.  Fermat’s Room is well worth the 90 minute investment, and should continue to pull you back for more.

Note: Darker Side of Film’s review of Fermat’s Room was originally published in Shallow Graves Magazine in July 2010.

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