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Movie Review: Fermat’s Room

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IFC Films and MPI Home Video have announced the DVD release of Fermat's Room, written and directed by Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña.

La Habitación De Fermat, or Fermat's Room, was originally released in Spain on November 16, 2007. It grossed approximately $284,000 in its opening weekend. The movie was released in the United States in international film festivals in early 2009, before going directly to DVD. Blockbuster Inc. originally had acquired a temporary exclusive license for its rental release in the United States.

Fermat's Room stars veteran international star Federico Luppi (Guillermo del Toro's Cronos and Pan's Labyrinth) as the diabolical Fermat and, as the trapped mathematicians, Lluis Homar (Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education), Elena Ballesteros, Alejo Sauras and Santi Millan.

This movie intrigued me — despite the fact that it was in Spanish with English subtitles (I think many can attest that generally watching a foreign movie with subtitles can be a bit taxing). As it turned out, that was pretty much a non-issue. I actually watched Fermat's Room a couple of times just to make sure I didn't miss all the nuances by having to read the subtitles. Nope, got the whole thing the first time.

Fermat's Room is an intricately conceived and brilliantly devious thriller. The premise: four genius mathematicians who apparently don't know each other are given pseudonyms/code names, and invited to the remote home of a mysterious man known only as Fermat.

But it turns out that Fermat's room is the incredible shrinking room where staying alive is much more challenging than the mathematical enigmas presented — each of which must be answered within 60 seconds to keep the room from shrinking further under the pressure of four powerful hydraulic presses akin to those used to make cubes out of automobiles in junk yards.

The opening scene is set with a young, innovative but cocky mathematician showing off… errr, I mean, teaching a couple of cute young lady students some interesting facts about prime numbers. This same brilliant young man is soon to be demonstrating that he has resolved the Goldbach Conjecture. But then, to his dismay, he finds out that his room has been trashed, his computer destroyed, and his documentation and papers gone. Who would do such a thing?

Goldbach's Conjecture is one of the oldest unsolved problems in number theory and in all of mathematics. Christian Goldbach postulated it in a letter he wrote to Leonhard Euler in 1742. Who would have thought that a long dead mathematician's conjecture would have so much to do with four genius's struggle with life or death today?

Back to our story. About this time, these four mathematicians are presented with a cordial letter containing a problem to solve. The carrot? If they can solve it, Fermat's letter says they will will receive an invitation for a weekend excursion, for the purpose of exchanging knowledge and an opportunity to solve an important enigma.

Every detail of the weekend has been intricately arranged; the arrival, the room prepared, dinner waiting, the enigmas set up, and every possible contingency considered with mathematical precision. Or has it?

After dinner, they lose their host to a call from the hospital and must carry on without him. They inadvertently get locked in the room while the problems — the enigmas — start coming, and coming. They must find the answers quickly enough to stop the room from closing in around them — before they are all crushed in Fermat's room!

All of the story elements seem to be interwoven — it's a real mindbender.  As time goes on, they are finding that there are other enigmas they need to figure out at the same time — real life hidden connections that could tell them something about Fermat, why he is doing this, and maybe find a way out.

I found myself trying to figure out their enigmas right along with them, but more importantly, trying to second guess all the real life answers that needed to be solved. The panic and the intricacies! It just gets deeper and more frantic as time goes on. I got so wrapped up in the story and trying to solve the enigmas, that I totally forgot that I was reading the subtitles to understand much of what was going on.

On the Eye For Film website, under a feature called Boxing Clever, there is a piece called "Luis Piedrahita reveals the secrets of Fermat's Room." Here is one small part of that article:

"Making suspense plots or mystery plots and making magic are very similar because you have to hide the clues and you have to pretend to be natural but you are sowing something that’s going to be interesting at the end,” says Luis. “The construction of the tale, doing a magic trick and making a mystery plot, the structure is very similar, because both of them need an amazing ending. The magic needs people gasping at the end. In a suspense plot you need exactly the same.”

But Luis adds that the best trick of all was devising a premise that would work on a budget of less than a million euros."

Amazingly, the entire movie, start to finish, was completed in just 24 weeks. But don't let that fool you into thinking it was thrown together.

In the same must-read article, Luis Piedrahita talked about the challenges in shooting the movie, in particular the challenges for everyone involved as the room started getting smaller and smaller, making it more and more difficult to get the cameras, lights, and related equipment into the shrinking room.

Anyone who enjoys a good murder mystery, or a suspenseful thriller would likely enjoy this movie as much as I did.

For the family-minded: please note that this movie has not been rated. The movie does have some mature subject matter in the dialog, although the worst is implied, not actually stated. Also, like many movies today, it has what many parents would consider to be bad language. Personally, I would recommend it for mature audiences.

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