Movie Reviews 264 – Fermat’s Room (2007)

Fermat's RoomPierre de Fermat was a 15th century differential calculus mathematician that created a few proofs and theorems in his lifetime but one of which was lost in time. It took another 350 years for another scientist to provide the correct calculations that re-proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, a goal mathematicians salivatingly tried to puzzle all those years. (There is a great PBS Nova episode called “The Proof” that describes Fermat’s last Theorem and how it was eventually solved. Highly recommended viewing.)

The movie Fermat’s Room (La habitación de Fermat) has nothing to do with any of the above except the use of the mathematicians name. But puzzles, brainteasers, mathematical formulas, and multiple mysteries are at the crux of the plot. And like any good puzzle, there are layers to the plot that quickly becomes a race against time, and failure to solve puzzles will result in the ultimate price… death.

A bunch of world renowned mathematicians receive a letter in which a complex mathematical link between a series of numbers must be deciphered by a given deadline. When four of them solve the challenge they receive an invitation by the mysterious “Fermat” to a desolate meeting point at a specific date and time, and are asked not to identify themselves to one another, but are each provided the name of famous historical mathematicians of yore. Thus “Pascal”, “Galois”, “Hilbert” and “Oliva” meet in a secluded forested area and while still quizzing each other begin to solve puzzles that lead them first to an abandoned mill and then to a room inside.

The elder subject “Hilbert” (Lluís Homar) seems thrilled to be part of the challenge, asserting that mathematicians have had a tradition for such mysterious encounters before as a friendly social gathering of like-minded deep thinkers. Others like “Pascal” (Santi Millán) who solved the initial question with only hours to spare is only curious about the identity of their unseen host. The young “Galois” (Alejo Sauras) who recently solved another great mathematical problem but whose room was later vandalized resulting in the loss of his celebrated solution is more interested to know if this Fermat was somehow connected. Finally “Oliva” (Elena Ballesteros) seems more interested in “Galois” than the mystery at hand.

When “Fermat” finally makes his entrance he soon receives a call on his cell (despite all the others being warned not to bring one) that forces him to tend to an emergency. No sooner does he leave that the other find themselves trapped in the room with an electronic PDA from which they receive instructions from “Fermat”, and then the puzzles start arriving. As they try to solve the first riddle they notice that all four walls are slowly closing in and only a solution will temporarily halt the closing in.

From that point every piece of information is turned on it’s head as they group tries to figure out who is trying to kill them and why. The layers start to unravel, connections to the past are exposed and the truth slowly, beautifully emerges. Things taken for granted are revisited from another perspective, and yet completely logical. Almost nothing is as it appears and every shocking discovery seems to raise new questions.

The Spanish dual directing and writing team of Luis Piedrahita (also a comedian and magician by trade) and partner Rodrigo Sopeña is both amazingly complex and yet simple once understood, just like to small puzzles the group must solve to stay alive. But unlike solving brainteasers yourself where you struggle for a solution, watching this movie will be satisfying as all those riddles are clearly explained, including Fermat’s puzzle.

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