DVD Review: Fermat's Room (2007)

Now Available on DVD

Barring a fictitious title such as “Who Wants to Be a Nobel Prize Winner,” if you were asked to choose a game show for which a quartet of mathematicians would be ideally suited, no doubt Jeopardy would be near the top of the list. For although they may each have been gifted with A Beautiful Mind, let's just say that nobody looks at the obsessive geniuses on display in Darren Aronofsky's Pi and the Chuck Lorre/Bill Prady sitcom The Big Bang Theory and thinks, “Hey, get these folks on Survivor stat!”

While obviously I realize this isn't a task that would normally fall into your lap (unless you're a TV executive desperate for ratings) and I've never actually met anyone who says “stat” outside of medical melodramas, it's the type of strange hypothetical that flows through your mind in the mesmerizing Spanish puzzler Fermat's Room which pits four mathematicians in a battle to stay alive.

Enticed by the curiosity and exclusivity involved, four mathematicians are lured by a riddle they must solve in order to accept an invitation to a gathering of top minds. And sure enough, the
connection that the group of strangers have to one another is eventually revealed as the engrossing work continues when they find their way to a mysterious dinner party hosted by a man named Fermat.

The journey begins with a Clue style set-up complete with an homage to the comedy film as far as the arrival of guests goes as one character picks up another one on the side of the road (a la Professor Plum and Ms. Scarlett) yet with none of the intentional screwball banter of the '80s classic. Once they've reached the necessary point, the guests must cross water to arrive at a destination where they soon realize is less of a meeting of the minds than a battle of the wits to stay alive.

Instructed to leave all of their cellular phones behind, right after their host Fermat is unexpectedly called away for an emergency, the foursome discover an electronic device that presents them with a variety of riddles, mathematical problems, and brain teasers they must solve in the designated time. However, it's not just a fun new toy as the answers must be submitted or the hydraulic press style walls will move inward, crushing the room and the occupants like Star Wars' trash compacter.

A riveting intellectual near real-time thriller, this film festival import engrosses immediately, despite some obvious twists that seem fairly easy to predict including the fact that the four are given aliases that we realize have much more significance than the colors used in Clue and Reservoir Dogs. However, admittedly I was stumped as to why they didn't try removing the batteries, texting elsewhere, trying to “beat the game” or manipulating the electronic device that made the walls close in on them as a claustrophobic nightmare.

Yet, thankfully just as the clever screenplay begins to reveal more about our leads as it unravels like a perfectly knitted square, the logic of the rest of their actions feels right as they use all of the objects at their disposal including books and furniture while attempting to secure the corners to build a strong fortress. This decision logically buys them some time as they cleverly test their construction by waiting a few extra moments to answer the riddles when the allotted time has run out.

Transferred to DVD in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen and 5.1 surround sound of the original Spanish audio with Spanish and English subtitles, the picture quality of the disc from IFC Films and MPI Media Group is a bit grainy overall with some weak definition and soft flesh tones, which makes the title best viewed in a dark room film on a bigger screen television wherein you can adjust the sharpness and color. Yet, because the film is so satisfying, you'll be quick to overlook the less-than-stellar clarity and absence of a bonus feature aside from the trailer since it's a work that is sure to garner a greater cult film status on DVD, which makes me optimistic we may be treated to another release of Fermat's Room in the future.

Although some have argued that the film features inauthentic and gorgeous individuals along with puzzles that are below the genius level and Fermat is guilty on both accounts, the creative team of former TV scribes Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena are smart enough to understand in their fast-paced, 92 minute feature filmmaking debut as writer-directors that to fully engage the audience, we need to feel as though we're able to understand at least a fraction of the riddles with which they're saddled.

As nothing is more yawn-inducing than listening to mathematicians rattle on using terminology that most can't begin to grasp, likewise those in charge also knew that presenting an internationally appealing cast instead of stereotypical nerds would also work on another level of getting superficial individuals in the door. Thus, by doing so, they opened up a “math thriller” of life and death to an audience who may not have otherwise attended.

Admirably avoiding overt gore or horror exploitation for the smarter approach of subtly startling scenes including one on a road that reminded me of another overseas stunner With a Friend Like Harry, the highly recommended Fermat's Room should easily appeal to sophisticated viewers looking for a cinematic puzzler. To this end, it will particularly attract devotees of Clue, Tell No One, Gosford Park, drawing room mysteries like Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, Sleuth and David Fincher's The Game in the way that it leads you down a variety of possible final solutions in addition to discovering not just whom the true villain may actually be but furthermore whether or not they have any accomplices in this mathematical death trap.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.