Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
This column has visited Spain three times previously, and all three were for genre films. From the horrors of Rec to the twisted science fiction of Timecrimes to the deadly thrills of King of the Hill, this is clearly a country in love with the fantastic. Well far be it from me to break with such a long and established tradition. This week’s film is once again a thriller, but unlike King of the Hill which featured characters running for their lives through some beautiful mountainous terrain… most of this film takes place in one room.
Four strangers, all mathematicians in one form or another, receive invitations to a select gathering where they’re promised dinner and a chance to solve one of the world’s most challenging mathematical problems. They’re each assigned a name based on a famous mathematician (Galois, Hilbert, Olivia, and Pascal) and told their host will be using the title moniker of Fermat. The mysterious instructions lead them to a small island and a building in apparent disarray, but once inside they discover a warm and comfortable room setup for their dinner party. Their host arrives but is quickly called away before the challenge can be laid out… and then the text messages begin to appear. Each one includes a math-related problem and a timer countdown. If they fail to reply with the correct answer before the timer hits zero the walls begin to move inward threatening to crush them into two dimensional genius jelly. Now the four must work together to solve not only the timed questions but the bigger one as well… who’s doing this to them and why?
Writers/directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena have created an engrossing thriller that works well within a limited budget and scope. They keep things moving at a steady pace from setup through the various reveals and wisely include multiple smaller mysteries against the larger backdrop. I say wisely because the main twist of their story is fairly obvious, and yet you still can’t help but be intrigued and involved in the characters’ dilemma. There are problems with some of the film’s logic as well, but they’re minor issues for the most part and odds are you won’t even think about it during the movie because you’ll be too engrossed in what’s happening. They may crop up as you think about the movie later though, so a tighter script would have been appreciated. But what Piedrahita and Sopena lose in their script they almost make up for in their solid and stylish direction. Lingering reaction shots, relevant background staging, and some very cool overhead camera angles keep your attention.
The story works despite its flaws, and the reason for that and the strength of the film rests mainly on the shoulders of the four main actors and their secretive characters. We get only a brief introduction to the characters before they enter the room where they’ll spend the remainder of the film. Galois (Alejo Sauras) is a young student who was on the brink of a major mathematical achievement before someone sabotaged his research, and Sauras shows both his cockiness and insecurities perfectly. Hilbert (Lluis Homar) is the old man who lives for puzzles. Olivia (Elena Ballesteros) is a young woman who has shown great mathematical potential but has yet to prove herself. And Pascal (Santa Millan) is a disgruntled engineer whose past projects have included… industrial-sized hydraulic presses. All four become victims and suspects, but like the math problems they hold so dear there can be only one correct answer to the question of who’s behind it all.
Fermat’s Room is a well-constructed mix of ideas resulting in a film that could almost be described as Saw meets Pi meets Murder By Death. It shares some concepts with those movies while still maintaining a distinct identity of its own, and a run-time under ninety minutes is a perfect amount of time for the puzzle to play out without the audience growing tired of it or of these same four characters yelling at each other. The main mystery isn’t without flaws though, particularly in the details and ease at which it can be guessed in advance, but the individual characters each bring their own smaller twists and surprises to the story which keeps things constantly interesting and entertaining. The film isn’t as smart as the math nerds who populate it, but it’s still a pretty sharp little thriller.
The Upside: Well written characters; strong set design; individual character mysteries are well done; puzzles the audience can try to solve
The Downside: The main mystery is a bit too predictable; villain’s plan is overly elaborate; riddles are more logic problems than math challenges