Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

La Habitacion de Fermat (Fermat’s Room) – 2007

Four seeming disparate people – all capable mathematicians - are invited to a meeting far out in the Spanish countryside under the premise of solving a problem that has plagued mathematicians for centuries. But the invitation and the guests are not as they appear to be on the surface.

This is a fun little thriller written and directed by Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena, and seen on the Sundance Channel. Once our group of four – Santi Milan as “Pascal,” Lluis Homar as “Hilbert,” Alejo Sauras as “Galois,” and Elena Ballesteros as “Oliva” (all given fake names after famous mathematicians) – gathers in a room at their destination, they find themselves having to solve various mathematical story problems - they call them “enigmas” – and they have some major incentive to do so: the four walls of the room all have been rigged with giant industrial presses which cause the walls to move in on the foursome, certain to crush them to death unless they can band together and figure out why the mysterious “Fermat” is doing this to them, and, more importantly, find a way out to freedom.

Fermat’s Room plays like a tight episode of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series or the classic Twilight Zone, combined with a bit of Cube, the low budget sci-fi gem that was also shot primarily on one major set. The "enigmas" they are given to solve are very tricky; they are more problems of logic than simple (or even complex) math, but that doesn't detract from the movie one bit. (I'm still trying to figure out the one involving three boxes with anise seeds and mint seeds!)

It has strong performances across the board. Sauras, as the hip young mathematics poster boy, looks like an older Jonas Brother. Ballesteros has a bit of an Audrey Hepburn air about her, and an understated sexiness that combines with her intelligence to make her very desirable. The premise is intriguing (between this movie and Pi, never say math isn't sexy enough to sell tickets), solid production design on a lower budget (pay attention to the wall paper in the room!), and even some neat digital effects work in one sequence.

I’ve seen two great Spanish films on Sundance Channel now – this one and Before the Fall (aka Tres Dias) - and I hope they continue this tradition of showcasing interesting foreign indie movies, as well as American indies.

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