Writers-directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena were clearly inspired when they made this neat low-budget 'Math thriller', as I like to call it. "Fermat’s Room" reminded me of three films: Darren Aronofsky’s "Pi", Vincenzo Natali’s underrated Canadian thriller "Cube" and James Wan’s cult thriller "Saw". At the same time it also reminded me of some of Hitchcock’s work!
That said, this film scores because it is a classic case of inspiration and is not a rip-off.
The film is literally an interesting puzzle box for puzzle geeks or Math geeks. A math genius who calls himself 'Fermat' sends out a math riddle to various mathematicians and scientists around and adds a message that only those who manage to crack the puzzle would get to share a grand dinner at a gathering with other true geniuses. At this dinner, Fermat would interest all these bright people with 'one of the greatest enigmas ever' that he has planned for them to solve. Only four people manage to crack Fermat’s code and end up at the place of the meeting following the cryptic clues laid out for them. The real names of these people are never revealed; they are given pseudonyms by Fermat; all these pseudonyms being names of former mathematicians!
Once at the venue they discover that the very room they are in IS in fact the enigma…..it is a meticulously designed 'shrinking room' that is slowly closing in on them. The only way to escape being crushed by the walls and preventing the room from becoming their tomb is by solving some puzzles sent to them on a sole PDA that has been given to them. The PDA is connected to the system that controls the shrinking! Solving each puzzle correctly in the stipulated time would prevent the house from shrinking and only then would they be able to save themselves!
Although somewhat far-fetched, the premise is definitely refreshing and "Fermat’s Room" is packed with all the essential ingredients of a typical claustrophobic thriller of this sort. There is the paranoia, the lack of trust, the nervousness, the constant feeling that it is anything but a coincidence that the four people were brought there together. Sure, it does ring a bell and we have seen a few thrillers of this sort before. What wins this film more points is the ingenious idea of a shrinking room, and the breathtaking manner in which the effects of the same have been achieved with a minimal set design and almost no reliance on special makeup effects or gratuitous violence and gore. The entire film relies on human emotions and reactions, and of course, the highly intriguing puzzles set out for the guests by their mysterious host. At a time when they can hardly think straight with death staring in their faces, our guests are subjected to some brain-racking math problems that would prove to be the ultimate test of their abilities as they are forced to perform in a 'pressure' situation (pun intended)! We find ourselves struggling to find the solution as we watch our primary characters racing against time to get to the bottom of each riddle. Of course, you have to be a lover of logic puzzles to find this little part interesting! The filmmakers, perhaps, deliberately refrain from including hardcore math puzzles (involving theorems and numbers) so as to reach a wider audience.
It was imperative to have actors who could pull off a film relying on everything else so minimal and hence an apt choice of actors comprising of Lluís Homar (terrific actor; has worked with Pedro Almodovar), Santi Millán, Federico Luppi (a favourite of Guillermo Del Toro), Alejo Sauras and Elena Ballesteros. The guys are all do good; however the sole female actor in this venture is the weakest of the lot as she appears almost stoic in the worst of situations! It is uncertain whether the directors wished that, or whether Elena is wooden in the first place; nonetheless, hers is the weakest performance in the film.
The film manages to hold our attention fairly well with its taut screenplay and a good amount of twists thrown our way in the final half hour. Maybe it’s just me, but too many twists sometimes lead to the undoing of an otherwise satisfying story. The twists in "Fermat’s Room" border on the brilliant as well as contrived. Thus, a couple of those several surprises, while surely manage to catch us unawares, still seem slightly forced! Add to that a very convenient finale designed as a perfect wrap-up device that is, again, slightly less impressive.
In spite of the shortcomings, "Fermat’s Room" is a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing thriller and deserves credit for being one of the better low budget films of the genre.