Saturday, May 03, 2008

FILM REVIEW: La Habitacion de Fermat

This was the first Tribeca Film Festival I had time to participate in....even though I've lived in New York for 22 years. There was only one movie that I felt like paying $15 for and it didn't disappoint. La Habitacion de Fermat is a Spaniard movie that was written and directed by newcomers Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena. The title means "the room of Fermat," a room that may not compare to the torture chambers of the Saw saga, but is just as deadly.

The film is about four mathematicians, three men and a woman, who are invited to participate in a meeting of the minds, where they'll solve difficult enigmas. The catch is that they're given 60 seconds to solve each problem and if the allotted time runs out, the four walls of the room start to compress. Needless to say, the room is locked and the pressure is on. Besides the obvious suspense element that is introduced almost immediately, there was a seamless connection between all of the characters and the man who lured them there. One would assume that he has a legitimate grudge against them and by the end you discover that it's an impassioned one indeed.

Although the question of "Who is Fermat?" is asked by the mathematicians early on, the mystery itself truly starts when they meet at a secret location and begin their journey across a lake in a rusty boat. Given secret identities, co-opted from famous mathematicians, the eternally bored old-timer who goes by Hilbert (Lluis Homar from Bad Education) presents a perplexing riddle: A shepherd must transport a sheep, a cabbage, and a wolf across a lake in a boat, but he can only take two at a time. How does he do it without allowing the wolf to eat the sheep or the sheep to eat the cabbage? Pascal (Santi Millan), the disheveled functioning alcoholic inventor, solves the riddle before Galois (Alejo Sauras), the well-publicized over-confident ingenue, or Oliva (Elena Ballesteros), the docile intellectual beauty, can scratch their heads any longer. But any paranoid viewer would wonder if such a riddle is the skeleton, if you will, of the entire plot. Which of these four individuals is the leader (shepherd), the follower (sheep), the idiot (cabbage), or the con artist (wolf), helping Fermat from the inside? Devoid of information about one another, the suspicion manages to escalate with every juicy detail divulged, linking them together through more than just math. Previous romantic relationships are uncovered, an accidental murder confessed, and professional jealousy is unveiled as the walls close in on them, crushing the furniture and fiending for flesh.

The true identity of Fermat and his purpose for wanting them dead is complimented by an interesting dinner discussion held prior to the start of the game, where the guests pondered the morality of desiring to be invisible. They come to the conclusion that most people who wish for such a superpower never intend on using it for good. Since the man who introduces himself at the beginning of the evening as Fermat (Federico Luppi) manages to make up a reason to leave abruptly, while encouraging them to go on without him, the discussion raises the suspicion that perhaps he wishes to watch them die. Yet at the same time, with their paranoia of each other, they wonder if their real enemy stands beside them, eager to watch it happen up close. See, the question "Would you use your invisibility for good or evil?" is the same as asking, "Would you want to be God or the Devil?"

Piedrahita and Sopena weaved a remarkable suspense thriller, forcing viewers to change their predictions of who "the wolf" was and question their own morality simultaneously. During the post-Q&A session, the audience, not only enjoyed the sense of humor that was subtly injected into the film, but learned that the Spaniards channeled several American suspense experts. The numerical error message on the PDA that transmitted the enigmas was an homage to the "Lost" numbers and the 60 second countdown was a likeness of "24." While I enjoyed the inside notes, as well as felt enraptured by the riddle that the film was encased in, I found it perplexing--or enlightening, depending on how you look at it--that the mathematicians were more concerned about stopping the walls from closing in on them or uncovering Fermat's vendetta against them rather than trying to solve the biggest enigma that was right in front of them: How do we get out of the room? Granted, they thought that once they found Fermat's purpose, they could possibly repent or clear up a misunderstanding, but whether it was due to the frantic environment or the curse of over-thinking situations, it truly confused me as to why they weren't just looking for an exit.

Nonetheless, of the many Spaniard films I've seen, I'd put this one up with my other favorite, Tesis (Alejandro Amenabar). Both manage to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat, minus gore or stunts.

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