El Sicario, Room 164 (2010)
Τhe controversial documentary by Gianfranco Rosi. A retired sicario is narrating his experiences working for the Mexican drug cartels.
Gianfrano Rosi is an Italian documentarist who is widely known for his latest film Sacro GRA that was awarded with the Golden Lion at the 70th Venice Film Festival. This was also his first work that was related with Italy since during the previous years he covered quite different and controversial themes around the world. El Sicario, Room 164 (2010) is his third feature film and was based on the book Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden. The film had participated at the 67th Venice Film Festival, in the section Orizzonti, and was the winner of the FIPRESCI Prize and the Orizzonti Documentary Award.
El Sicario: The term sicario goes back to Roman Palestine, where a Jewish sect, the Sicarii, used concealed daggers (sicae) in their murders of Romans and their supporters. In modern language, a sicario is a professional killer or a hit man. That is basically all the necessary information that someone needs in order to watch this documentary. In a motel room somewhere on the borders of USA and Mexico a retired anonymous Mexican sicario talks about his life. He has worked for over twenty years for the drug traffickers in Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua and has killed hundreds of people. Now he lives as a fugitive and there is a $250,000 contract on his life issued by the drug cartels.
Gianfranco Rosi followed a simple but quite effective path in directing that story. He decided to work in the most minimalistic way possible and by this way he created one of the most realistic and cruel documentaries that are dealing with drug trafficking. He only uses a digital camera and a sterile motel room. The protagonist, El sicario is dressed in black and with his head covered by a black cloth, simply describes moments of his past life. The only tools that he’s using is a notebook and a marker where he designs and writes all the details that are considered important to him. Simple as that, the camera just follows him and his narration and nothing else. There are no strange angles, no fancy photography, no score, no voice-over, no time-lapses, nothing breaks this confession apart from a couple random external scenes taken in Ciudad Juárez that are used as fillers. Everything is set in that room 164, one of the rooms that the sicario had previously used to torture one of his victims. Theoretically a film which is so austere couldn’t offer anything special from cinematic point of view, but this is wrong in this case. The facts that this sicario is sharing are enough to cover the documentary’s purpose so anything more than that could be overwhelming and unnecessary.
The fact that the viewer is just watching a man talking makes the documentary even scarier. The accuracy and the precision of all the details that are dealing with his job are even more haunting. The sicario is an expert on how to perform the perfect kidnapping, how to torture someone in the most extreme way and how to murder from a distance or up close. He also knows how deep has reached the corruption in all levels of the Mexican authorities. From the police that are literally working for the cartels to the governors that offer safe houses for the interrogations and the burials of the murdered victims. Also he knows well how drugs are passing through Mexico, that no one can touch this business and how to avoid Americans to get involved. The cruelest part of this documentary is when you understand that everything that is described is real. Rosi doesn’t leave any space for extra dramatization that could be eye-catching for the viewer and a bit relieving. If there was any kind of reenactments of the crimes then that fraction of fiction would settle the emotions but the director doesn’t do that. Inevitably that technique forces the viewer to imagine and create the images on his own and that works in film’s favor.
The film doesn’t take sides in this drug world. Rosi is attempting to be as objective as possible by observing the sicario’s confession of his personal tragedy. He doesn’t try to idolize him or condemn him either. There is of course no remission for his acts. Every judgment is left to the final viewer, who can be affected only by the storyline. El Sicario, Room 164 is a realistic documentary that in its simplicity doesn’t try to offer easy answers.