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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fermat's Room: Math Just Isn't Scary

Once, on a third grade math test, I was asked to find the difference between 9 and 6. My response, instead of 3, was to say that the number 9 has a circle on top with a line below it, while the six has the circle on the bottom with the line above. This should help illustrate my level of competency at math throughout my school years.

Knowing this, one would think I'd be downright terrified by Fermat's Room, the Spanish suspense thriller from directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena (what is it with these Spaniards and their co-directing?). After all, terror was exactly what mathematics inspired in me throughout most of my education, and Fermat's Room is all about mathematics.

Yet, while it is a reasonably effective thriller, in the end it left me flat. Perhaps this is due to my own bias against the field of mathematics, but I simply had a hard time engaging with the film, and much of the heavy import of the goings-on was lost on me, due to the fact that when I hear the name Euclid, I'm more likely to think of an avenue in New York City than of Greek geometry.

Fermat's Room tells the story of a group of gifted mathematicians who are all invited by a mysterious stranger to take part in a private think tank, in which they will be asked to solve a series of mind-bending mathematical problems and riddles--a challenge to their intellects that they can't pass up. Once there, however, they discover that not all is as it seems, since the room they wind up trapped inside is actually a huge hydraulic press, and they must solve the problems as quickly as possible to avoid being squashed into cranberry sauce.

A clever little premise, sort of like Hitchcock meets Saw. And in the beginning, it is quite fascinating. The characters, each with a code name taken from a famous mathematician, are all very strong: Pascal (Santi Millan), the no-nonsense pragmatist; Oliva (Elena Ballesteros), the beautiful mathematrix; Galois (Alejo Sauras), the conceited wunderkind; and Hilbert (Lluis Homar), the prim and proper elder mathematician. Homar in particular shines in his role, and the character interactions highlight the film.

However, as the plot twists unfold, the film paradoxically begins to lose steam. Personally, it was hard for me to invest myself emotionally in the situation, revolving as it did around the lofty importance of byzantine, high-level mathematics. Call it my anti-math bias, but I was unable to identify with the characters' passion for arcane and trivial (to me) mathematical enigmas. Yes, I feel ignorant saying this, and yes, some of the solutions to the problems presented were fascinating, but ultimately I found the whole affair somewhat silly.

And then there's the final plot twist and resolution, which is more than a bit of a letdown after the decent amount of tension built over the course of the picture. I won't spoil anything, and I definitely didn't see it coming. But the big twist was sabotaged for me, again, by its being tied to a seemingly ridiculous dispute amongst mathematicians (kind of reminds me of those medieval theologians who would debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin).

The final resolution is equally disappointing, and worst of all, sadly mundane. It's definitely one of those, "Oh, that can't be it..." moments.

In closing, there is some solid acting here, impressive characterizations and a decent script. Nevertheless the suspense is ultimately deflated by a rather weak central premise. It's definitely worth a look, and if you're more of a math geek than I am, you may actually find the whole thing far more captivating than I did. If so, let me know!

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And while I have you here, please be so kind as to pay a visit to Cinema Geek, a movie blog run by fellow LoTT-D member and Classic-Horror.com impresario Nate Yapp. I've just kicked off a special quasi-weekly series I'm doing over there for Nate entitled "52 Perfect Movies", and I just got started with Charlie Chaplin's City Lights...

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