Fermat’s Room – Review – EuroVisions Of Cinema: #5

Michael Prescott
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La Habitacion de Fermat, or Fermat’s Room for us English-speakers, opens with the line: ‘Do you know what prime numbers are? Because if you don’t, you should just leave now’. This little Spanish thriller has a hard-on for mathematics, not quite to the same extent and intensity of Aronofsky’s debut Pi perhaps, but a real fondness all the same. In this final EuroVision review before taking an extended break from the series, we’ll explore the intricacies of Fermat’s Room. After inspecting The Counterfeiters, North Sea Texas, Dead Snow and Cinema Paradiso so far – covering Germany, Belgium, Norway and Italy – this week we turn our attentions to Spain.

Whilst Spanish film has been thriving for years, particularly with the likes of Guillermo Del Toro and a certain Pedro Almodovar – whose films I’ve reviewed previously – there have been smaller releases which too deserve credit and attention. For instance, who knew that pictures like Che, The Others and The Machinist were actually Spanish productions but made as English-language films? My decision was a difficult one; Timecrimes is a wonderful little sci-fi thriller and Y Tu Mama Tambien is a sexual delight fit for Vada readers everywhere, but in the end it was the somewhat undiscovered and unexplored Fermat’s Room that won out.

Fermat’s Room is actually the first of our EuroVisions of Cinema films that’s not a first-time watch for me. Fortunately that’s pretty apt, given that – not only is it very much worthy of a second viewing – but it’s a film whose secretive plot almost requires it. The tense and enigmatic nature of the unfolding issues resolve to give the viewer a completely different experience on first watch – when he/she knows nothing of what is about to happen and of these characters – compared to further viewings. Although on any of these occasions it’s difficult to escape the foreboding sense of dread, as if the walls are closing in on all involved. Speaking of which…

The film starts with quick introductions to three different characters; an attractive and youthful guy, an older gentleman who is apparently suicidal, and a third male in his thirties. The eldest of the three reveals an invitation – on the proviso of being able to crack a particular code – as the 30-something-year-old guy is shown struggling with but eventually solving said puzzle. It turns out that these three plus an additional female are the only ones to work out the answer, and therefore are invited to attend a very special event by a mysterious man identified only as Fermat.

At this meeting point in the film, the atmosphere becomes one of a murder-mystery dinner party; the anticipation of Clue mixed with the charismatic energy of Dracula. Fermat arrives, introduces himself, but is forced to promptly leave… and then the games start to begin. The quartet are compelled to solve numerous mathematical conundrums before the ever-decreasing room size threatens to stifle their problem-solving abilities once and for all as it presents an ever-pressing problem of its own. Part of the pleasure of the film is the accessibility of these puzzles, allowing the audience to engage themselves in attempting to locate the answer with both familiar and unfamiliar riddles put forward.

There are an inevitable number of mini-twists and turns throughout, but they are handled intelligently and stand up to repeated viewings. It becomes a race against time to discover in just what sense the characters are being tested, and whether there’s a way out. But practicalities soon turns to philosophies as they battle on; questions arise and theories are discussed – as is no surprise given the minds in the room – as to who is behind the mask of Fermat, and for what possible reasons he has for such a heinous crime.

The drama and tension that unfolds before our eyes simply serves to frame, quite literally in certain respects, the burdens of the issues that lie beneath. This is never more apparent than the iconic poster-scene where the camera pans up to an overhead view of the ever-shrinking coffin, serving to display the well-handled production overall which captures the claustrophobic remains of the room as the situation develops. Fermat’s Room – despite all of its fun and games on the surface – therefore becomes something more sinister. The burning themes of desire and fame, passion and paranoia, shine through strongly in what is ultimately an examination of these issues.

Any good film made in this mould digs into a philosophy, as Cube and Saw – often mentioned in comparison – both do well. There is something deeper that goes beyond the supposed torture porn elements of the latter and the instinct to survive in this mystery conceit of the former. This extends to Phone Booth with Colin Farrell, which is another film that asks the flawed protagonist to bear open his soul in order to survive. But these one-room setup ideas of characters’ resolve being tested – and only doing so if they are honest and ready to learn – can be traced back all the way to classics like An Inspector Calls (and beyond).

Fermat’s Room is unlikely to be such a classic in the making but still manages to be a smart, tightly constructed thriller that has an energy, intrigue and pace that stands up to repeated viewings. And alongside similar thrillers from Spain – particularly Timecrimes – it’s a real delight to watch, and a personal favourite of mine.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott