Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: El Sicario, Room 164

A cross between a feature-length home movie and instant avant-garde classic, El Sicario, Room 164 records a man in a room (though not just any man) talking for 80 charged minutes.

Dec 27, 2011

-By Eric Monder


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1300938-El_Sicario_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

You don’t see the violence per se, but this documentary about a Mexican drug cartel hit man (a.k.a. “El Sicario”) goes way beyond the usual souped-up Hollywood caricatures of such, merely by recording the man’s testimony of past events. It is hard to imagine anyone outside the art-house set flocking to appreciate the film’s pared-down, minimalist approach, yet once viewers get in front of the screen, they won’t be moving away anytime soon.

El Sicario, Room 164 is based on a 2009 Harper’s magazine article by journalist Charles Bowden, who first interviewed the titular figure, a Ciudad Juarez hit man on the run from the law (who still today has a bounty on his head). When the article first appeared, Italian-born filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi (Below Sea Level) was so taken with it, he contacted Bowden and established enough of a rapport with “El Sicario” to convince him to talk for the first time in front of a camera.

Rosi and his crew set up the interview in a nondescript motel room located on the U.S./Mexican border and—with the condition he be disguised with a black hood—the hit man confessed to a 20-year career of brutal and deadly crimes. Throughout the film, El Sicario speaks through his dark mesh covering, mostly while seated, and depicts some of his experiences by drawing free-style on a canvas pad.

Simple, even dull, as it sounds, El Sicario, Room 164 is anything but: The contents of the transcript alone would be enough to rivet one’s attention, but the  personality of the man himself is also a major factor in the film’s success. (Clearly, El Sicario used his wiles, intellect and even charm to perform some of the less deadly acts of his business.) Just the same, our “protagonist” is also a bit ordinary at times (the banality of evil, perhaps?).

Despite the occasional nagging feeling that we are witnessing a great piece of performance art, a stunt by a filmmaker and a terrific actor (this is especially the case in the over-the-top last reel when he speaks of a religious conversion), the narrative rings authentically true enough for us to question not the primary subject of the film (or the “journalistic” coup by Rosi and Bowden), but the corrupt way Mexican (and other societies) operate by allowing an uneasy alliance between drug cartels and the police, including the governments themselves, all in a shameful quest for illegal profits. (To wit, El Sicario was on the police force when he started his life of contracted torture and murder.) In the end, the filmmakers seem to be saying, it doesn’t really matter if El Sicario represents a true person as long as he represents the Truth.

Some more astute critics have already compared El Sicario, Room 164 with the work of French director Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentaries, proving that a static interview in a confined space has the potential to be just as cinematic as any high-tech Hollywood product. There could be no higher praise than that.


Film Review: El Sicario, Room 164

A cross between a feature-length home movie and instant avant-garde classic, El Sicario, Room 164 records a man in a room (though not just any man) talking for 80 charged minutes.

Dec 27, 2011

-By Eric Monder


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1300938-El_Sicario_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

You don’t see the violence per se, but this documentary about a Mexican drug cartel hit man (a.k.a. “El Sicario”) goes way beyond the usual souped-up Hollywood caricatures of such, merely by recording the man’s testimony of past events. It is hard to imagine anyone outside the art-house set flocking to appreciate the film’s pared-down, minimalist approach, yet once viewers get in front of the screen, they won’t be moving away anytime soon.

El Sicario, Room 164 is based on a 2009 Harper’s magazine article by journalist Charles Bowden, who first interviewed the titular figure, a Ciudad Juarez hit man on the run from the law (who still today has a bounty on his head). When the article first appeared, Italian-born filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi (Below Sea Level) was so taken with it, he contacted Bowden and established enough of a rapport with “El Sicario” to convince him to talk for the first time in front of a camera.

Rosi and his crew set up the interview in a nondescript motel room located on the U.S./Mexican border and—with the condition he be disguised with a black hood—the hit man confessed to a 20-year career of brutal and deadly crimes. Throughout the film, El Sicario speaks through his dark mesh covering, mostly while seated, and depicts some of his experiences by drawing free-style on a canvas pad.

Simple, even dull, as it sounds, El Sicario, Room 164 is anything but: The contents of the transcript alone would be enough to rivet one’s attention, but the  personality of the man himself is also a major factor in the film’s success. (Clearly, El Sicario used his wiles, intellect and even charm to perform some of the less deadly acts of his business.) Just the same, our “protagonist” is also a bit ordinary at times (the banality of evil, perhaps?).

Despite the occasional nagging feeling that we are witnessing a great piece of performance art, a stunt by a filmmaker and a terrific actor (this is especially the case in the over-the-top last reel when he speaks of a religious conversion), the narrative rings authentically true enough for us to question not the primary subject of the film (or the “journalistic” coup by Rosi and Bowden), but the corrupt way Mexican (and other societies) operate by allowing an uneasy alliance between drug cartels and the police, including the governments themselves, all in a shameful quest for illegal profits. (To wit, El Sicario was on the police force when he started his life of contracted torture and murder.) In the end, the filmmakers seem to be saying, it doesn’t really matter if El Sicario represents a true person as long as he represents the Truth.

Some more astute critics have already compared El Sicario, Room 164 with the work of French director Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentaries, proving that a static interview in a confined space has the potential to be just as cinematic as any high-tech Hollywood product. There could be no higher praise than that.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Locke
Film Review: Locke

Taut, disturbing and unique drama about a man racing toward his destiny, providing Tom Hardy, literally, with a vehicle to flaunt his acting chops. More »

Small Time
Film Review: Small Time

You might not buy a used car from the guys in Small Time, but you will enjoy the movie about their exploits, even their exploitations (of others). More »

Fading Gigolo
Film Review: Fading Gigolo

Some top screen talent gets lost in the silliness surrounding the amorous adventures of an unlikely gigolo and his even more unlikely pimp, with writer/director/actor John Turturro the shtupper “ho” co-starring with Woody Allen as the mercenary shtup-enabler. Yarmulkes off to Turturro’s brave but deeply ill-conceived comedic foray into Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community and other alien territory. More »

A Promise
Film Review: A Promise

Handsomely filmed but wan period romance. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Transcendence
Film Review: Transcendence

Johnny Depp is an idealistic researcher whose consciousness is uploaded into an artificial intelligence in this slick techno-thriller with delusions of seriousness from Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer. More »

Draft Day
Film Review: Draft Day

Pro football manager faces crises on the most important day of his career in a well-tooled vehicle for Kevin Costner. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here