El Sicario, Room 164
Directed by Gianfranco Rosi
Distributed by Icarus Films
Playing at Film Forum Dec. 28–Jan. 3
To call El Sicario, Room 164 a sobering movie experience would be a serious understatement. For 80 minutes the film focuses on a hooded figure narrating, illustrating in a sketchbook and reenacting scenes from his 20-year career as a hitman and foot soldier in the Juárez drug cartel. This release comes in tandem with the publication of El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, by journalist Charles Bowden. Bowden’s 2009 Harper’s piece “The Sicario: A Juárez Hit Man Speaks,” served as the basis for Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, which is shaped by emptiness, anonymity and incompletion.
No names of people or places — in the press kit Rosi situates the motel where shooting took place “near the border area” — are given. Room 164, a location chosen by the sicario, where he used to “secure” victims, makes for a strangely detached setting, its red door the portal to secrets of a parallel universe. Such a description, however, suggests a world of excitement and mystery that the sicario’s revelations belie. Instead, his story details the raw, street-level implementation of the power structure that enables Mexico’s staggeringly profitable drug trade. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that the cartels have made $30 to $50 billion a year over the past two decades.
Initially recruited as a young teenager, the sicario learned how to drive, received a car and started trafficking drugs to El Paso. He then enrolled in the Police Academy, which disciplined and groomed him — along with a few hundred others — to become a high-caliber operative positioned in the gray area of common ground (known as the plaza) shared by law enforcement and the narcotics trade. He became a commander with the Chihuahua State Police and was simultaneously on the payroll of the cartels. The sicario has to be unconditionally committed, on duty 24/7 (failure to respond to a phone call is treated as a mortal offense) and ready to do anything for el patrón — as well as unscrupulously methodical in procedures of kidnapping, torture and execution.
Sicarios are cogwheels in a highly developed diabolical system: The cartel sends doctors out to revive “patients” so that they do not succumb too quickly to torture. The sicario relates how dead bodies left in different positions (face up or down, with a cut-off finger inserted into the mouth or anus) signal different meanings, and how the supposedly safely buried remains of DEA informants now prove traceable because they contain microchips.
While he takes pride in his professionalism (quick and clean action, no boasting about a job well done), he also asserts the need to be drunk and high on a killing mission — to stave off anxiety, not remorse. He used to be terrified of sleeping next to his wife because he was so on edge that the slightest noise could set off a violent reaction.
One day the sicario decided to give up la vida loca — the steady stream of drugs, money, cars and women — and embraced God. At first the cartel demoted him; then he was cut loose with a $250,000 contract on his head.
Though living on the run and in hiding ever since, he has found freedom through his conversion, judging by the emotional intensity of the way he reenacts the experience. Rosi was reluctant to intrude upon the intimacy of the sicario’s confessional delivery, so the presence of director and crew is never acknowledged. The film does not feature a single face, nor does it show any other testimonies, news footage or historical information. Apart from a few urban panoramas and deserted street corner shots of Juárez — the most violent city in the world, according to an endnote — only the sicario’s compulsively jotted-down, childlike sketches provide an image track that supports the story he unpacks.
Staring into his depersonalized countenance, the viewer sees “the true face of the Mexican state,” as Bowden puts it, a blank face that exposes how “the statements of American presidents about Mexico mean nothing because they insist on a Mexico that does not exist and that has never existed.” He describes the sicario as an ominous “messenger from the future. As the modern state eroded and fails to provide security and income for its members, and as a new economy supplants the official economy, sicarios will appear in many places — and already have. … This is not a film about a freak, but about a growing population.”