Let’s just face it: it’s practically impossible to be an innovative storyteller in film. It’s an art that usually re-uses, re-orders, and pays tributes. The magic and originality of cinema lies in the way filmmakers put all the elements together. It’s hard to detach our minds from thousands of images already recorded by our subconscious. The problem arises when the evident becomes too obvious or when re-use turns into overuse: then it just becomes “cliché” (and yes, sorry for using such a “cliché” word.)
Lluís Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña are the writers and directors of their first feature film La Habitación de Fermat (Fermat’s Room), a new Spanish suspense film that made its US debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, about four mathematicians who don’t know each other, and are invited by a mysterious host to solve a “great enigma.” Tempted for the challenge, they travel to an unknown house in the hills. The room where they meet ends up being a death machine that shrinks each time they can’t solve a riddle. Sooner or later they will die unless they discover why they are there and who wants to kill them.
The film has enclosed itself in the big challenge of making a film mainly in one room. Cinematographer Miguel Angel Amoedo and editor Jorge Macaya (Love, Pain & Viceversa, also showing at Tribeca) helped the writers/directors duo make a good job keeping a steady rhythm and aesthetic quality, but the movie falls early into a series of clichés that give you a claustrophobic sensation of hopelessness.
With performances that are accurate but not convincing enough, the four mathematicians are played by Lluís Homar (La Mala Eduación), Alejo Sauras, and Spanish TV stars Elena Ballesteros and Santi Millán. Some dialogues are not in the level of high IQ scientists, and it’s even disturbing to see these four supposedly genii sweating, excited and worried about puzzles and equations that reminds you of elementary or high school. That doesn’t mean that these are easy problems to solve, but it’s a strange situation. Even Fermat himself, the great Federico Luppi (an Argentine legend that acted in almost 100 movies, most recent one Pan’s Labyrinth) has no space to fully develop his role.
How many times can the characters jump scared from their spots when the intercom announces a new riddle? How much more tense can they get every time the walls move and shrink ? How necessary is it to repeat and reveal a tense moment through the device of a zoom or a high-pitched violin? Why do they need to explain everything with flashbacks and leave nothing to the audience’s imagination? Excess is the main sin of this movie: with stereotyped expressions and character development, and even the use of extra saturated color and evident suspense music score to announce….more suspense. All of this can easily turn off an audience, though one of the things this film actually does really well is embedding the riddles into the tight storyline. Proof of this is the number of awards it has won in two fantasy film festivals: Málaga Fantastic (Spain) and Fantasporto (Portugal.) The beginning credits show a miniature room being furnished by a human hand. It’s probably a way of advancing part of the plot: the walls will shrink. Or it’s perhaps that the film itself has already shrunk at the beginning. The most original element in this film is… the official website! (You don’t have to be a scientist to find it).Fermat’s Room didn’t go well in Spain: it was released in November 2007 with positive reviews, but despite counting with a few star-actors, it did less than a million dollar in the box office. Nevertheless, it has been sold to more than 20 countries, and it faces now a new challenge: IFC Entertainment has acquired the rights to do an American remake. Probably then we can solve the puzzle: can the story be saved? Is there any room for some fresh air, or nobody can make it better than their own creators? What happens at the end is pointless: it has already been (excessively) explained in this review, and the key lies in the title. I’m a sinner too.