Written and directed by Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeņa, the film opens with a brainy tease as a dashing young mathematician (Alejo Sauras) explains Goldbach's conjecture, which states any even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers. It's a number theory conundrum that's existed for centuries, and he's finally cracked the proof, turning him into a rock star of the math world. He's showing off his genius to some impressed gals, but before he can continue, he's interrupted: someone's broken into his dorm and stolen his work.
Flash forward a few months. An invitation has been sent out to a handful of Spain's top mathematical minds. Solve a puzzle, and you'll be allowed to attend a weekend retreat to work on a peculiar enigma posed by the host - a host who signs his letter "Fermat" and insists his guests use similar pseudonyms. The young man is dubbed "Galois," and joining him in what turns out to be the middle of nowhere are the older, troubled game aficionado "Hilbert" (Lluis Homar), the sultry young "Oliva" (Elena Ballesteros), and "Pascal" (Santi Millan), an alcoholic inventor. Fermat (Federico Luppi) eventually arrives in time for dinner but leaves soon after, just in time for, ah, yes, a little game of wits.
We've already been set up for a sort of riddle-me-this atmosphere, first with the deceptively simple riddle of Fermat's invite, then with some dialogue about the classic puzzler with the wolf, the goat, the cabbage, and the rowboat. We're in a mood to play along, hoping to beat the characters to the answer, grinning with pride when we do, slapping our forehead when we don't.
So when our quartet receive an enigma on a PDA provided to them by their host, we lean forward. It's a familiar one, featuring three mislabeled jars of two types of sweets. But what does the PDA mean, they only have sixty seconds to input their answer? And is it just me, or all the walls starting to close in, just a little?
That's the game, then: answer riddles or die. But puzzles alone do not make a good movie, so Piedrahita and Sopeņa pepper the script with a juicy assortment of twists and turns as we discover more about each character's troubled past, including links between characters who might know each other more than they first admit. This then amps up the paranoia, an attitude the filmmakers are eager to keep brewing, toying us with visual and verbal clues (and many, many red herrings) throughout; even the set design's in on the game, as the wallpaper design subtly hints at the mathematical layout of the walls that enable the room to shrink.
The problem, of course, with stories like this is that the big reveal must struggle to top whatever the viewer can imagine. The movie's big mystery - who's really doing all this, and why, and does the opening scene mean anything at all? - is a letdown in the sense that it seems a bit too pat to truly work, while leaving us with a couple plot holes left to fill in. The character links uncovered as the story rolls on are also a bit of a stretch (and don't really hold up on repeat viewings), but the trick here is that the performances are so good and the script is so interested in fleshing out the backstories in between the riddle bits that we end up accepting it all as the result of a sort of mad revenge.
There's also a frantic pace given to the second half of the film, which feels even more panicked when compared to the leisurely stroll of the first half. Piedrahita and Sopeņa give their characters (and us) no time to relax, using a smart trick of having multiple tasks at once - say, one character solves Fermat's latest riddle while others start to plan how to stop the walls from crushing them. Dark secrets seem more urgent as they're revealed during the rush of solutions. Time here is rubbery, with Fermat's sixty seconds taking minutes to elapse while the in-between moments rush by; you can call it a storytelling cheat or an intelligent way of manipulating the tension. (I call it both, not minding the cheat.)
"Fermat's Room" fades a bit when it's all over, as the calm of the closing credits gives us time to figure out how much some of the pieces don't quite fit. But the joy is all in the moment, when the filmmakers have us hooked with a terrific mystery and the challenge of a good puzzle.
"Fermat's Room" was originally released earlier this year as a Blockbuster-exclusive rental-only disc (reviewed here); IFC now provides us with a non-exclusive retail version, which appears to offer the same transfer and lone extra.
Video & Audio
There's an abundance of grain found throughout this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and dark levels get rather sludgy. The contrast seems to increase wildly during later scenes, although it's not clear if this is an artistic choice, a way of compensating for a too-dark digital video image, or something in between.
The Spanish soundtrack does just fine in its Dolby 5.1 treatment, with clear dialogue, subtle effects work, and sharp music. Optional subtitle tracks are offered in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
The film's U.S. trailer (1:07; 1.85:1 anamorphic) is all that's added.
"Fermat's Room" is a delicious entry in the gotcha! genre, full of all the right hints and surprises. But I'm not too keen on the rewatchability of it, especially considering the iffy video quality and lack of bonus material. Fans of cinematic brain stumpers should definitely Rent It.