Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Fermat's Room": a brain-teasing puzzle, and a technical exercise in screenwriting


Fermat’s Room” (“La habitacion de Fermat”) directed and written by Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña is another interesting exercise in “manipulative filmmaking”. It is part “Saw”, part “Spanish Prisoner”, part “Memento”, part “Baghead”, part "The Interview" (Australia), notably "The Most Dangerous Game", the 1932 classic based on Richard Connell's famous and notorious story, and even part “Copenhagen” -- and as much a stage play (for three-fourths of it) as a film.

What’s interesting about this kind of movie is setting up a “problem” and then having to force the characters to walk backwards in time to solve it.

In this case, four mathematicians are brought together in a secluded but well decorated, Spanish style (piano and food included) in a remote castle, for a social experiment. When the moviegoer is first shown the room, she wonders if this going to be a David Lynch "Twin Peaks" episode (sorry, no "warm milk").

The preamble is interesting. There is some math, such as Goldbach’s Conjecture (wiki link – every even number can be expressed as the sum of two primes) and Kurt Godel’s “incompleteness theorem (wiki), or even Fermat's Last Theorem (wiki link). A couple of the mathematicians, who may be rivals, play some speed chess. Then they meet, and are led on a “treasure hunt” (including a car equipped with GPS – Spain is certainly on the cutting edge of high tech) to the encounter.

What will follow is a complex of riddles – punctuated by “IQ test” riddles posed on the iPod phone, including a fifth person, who has the pseudonym of “Fermat”. The movie literally implodes into claustrophobia as the walls, powered by Poseidon hydraulic jacks, start to reduce the volume of their space, making a mess. They have to figure out the nature of their lives – including their own petty rivalries – to save their lives. This all seems to come from “The Lord”. The gradual implosion of the room seems like an artistic metaphor.

I’ve had a couple of mysteries in my life, one when I was substitute teaching, that reach into weird places – and they could be solved in a film like this, by working backwards, Benjamin Button style, from the evidence. This film shows how I could write my own.

The film stars Lluís Homar (as Hilbert), Alejo Sauras (as the hot-tempered Galois), Elena Ballesteros, Santi Millán, and Federico Luppi as "Fermat".

The film had theatrical distribution by IFC, but was shown in Filmfest DC this April at Landmark E Street. The production companies are Norvo and BocaBoca. Apparently it was filmed in Barcelona. The film was apparently shot on HD video, but is quite professionally made with a long list of European corporate credits from various countries.

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