Documentary Review: EL SICARIO: ROOM 164

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elsicario-posterGianfranco Rosi’s gripping documentary is about the life and career of a former Mexican hit man who, while working for a Mexican drug cartel, murdered and tortured hundreds of people at the behest of his bosses. El Sicario (hit man) is the film’s sole protagonist. He appears as the only witness to his life in crime, and he is shot (with a camera, of course) at only one location, Room 164, a rather standard room in a motel that’s located we know not where. But, it is in this very room that the sicario, in days past, tortured and dispatched his victims.

The sicario has, we learn, left his life of crime, and is now on the run. There is a $250,000 bounty on his head. It is for this reason that he is filmed with a black mesh cloth covering his head at all times, and why we are never told his whereabouts nor given his name. He does, however, use his own voice as he relates in a rather matter of fact tone the sordid details of his murderous deeds. His manner is dispassionate, almost detatched. It’s chilling.

Dramatic Details

elsicariostillThe sicario’s terrifying stories are made even more horrific by his use of a sketch pad and a black magic marker to constantly draw diagrams and crude pictures to underscore and illustrate his crimes. For example, boxes with four circles indicate where and how his gang positioned their cars to trap and capture a victim, making escape impossible. With deliberation, the sicario jots down dates, numbers and specific terminology while he talks non-stop, as if he’s determined to set straight the record of his actions.

But in this long filmed interview, the sicario neither confesses nor apologizes for his actions. He’s just your everyday killer-for-hire telling it like it is — or was — for him on the job.

Is Redemption the Motive?

In revealing his personal history, the sicario speaks about his initiation into the brotherhood of mob murderers, his rise to a position of power and responsibility within the gang, how his growing dependency on alcohol undermined his status and how, eventually, he became an avid Christian and fled his affiliation with the cartel. But, it’s never clear why he’s decided to speak up, nor how he met the filmmaker, nor whether he’s putting himself in danger by agreeing to be interviewed, and using his voice without distortion of any sort. So, although the film presents the sicario’s life and crimes in such a candid way, it is still full of mysteries. El Sicario: Room 164 is thoroughly gripping. You won’t be able to take your eyes from the screen. And you’ll want to watch the documentary a second time — just to find out whether you can believe your eyes and ears, and the sicario’s story.

El Sicario had its US theatrical release in 2011. It is available on DVD.

Film Details:

Title: El Sicario: Room 164
Director: Gianfranco Rosi
US Theatrical Release Date: December 28, 2011 (limited)
Running Time: 80 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Country: France, USA
Language: Spanish, with English subtitles
US Distribution: Icarus Films
Distribution Company: Doc & Film International
Official Site

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