El Sicario: Room 164 Review – Leeds Film Festival

“The job of a sicario”, I learn when sat at the opening of the most claustrophobic cinema experience to date, is to do away with the victim immediately”. This Spanish documentary is based on a Harper’s article by Charles Bowden and involves 80 minutes in a single motel room, just shy of the United States border, with a repentant veiled assassin. It’s a talking head film, with no other presence. An anonymous contract killer gives a lengthy monologue of his fascinating life story. He has killed hundreds and lives as a fugitive. There is a contract on his life of $250,000.

His life of crime began as a school boy persuaded by the luxuries that Narco-trafficking over the border could offer. “It was a happy time” he says. “Nobody else in school had these trainers”. Due to contacts he got admitted to the police academy, despite only meeting the physical demands of the criteria. He would bribe the guards and stay out all night.

Whilst speaking, the interviewee sketches what he describes onto a notepad. He draws stick men in kidnapping arrangements. He sketches a car covered in bullets to demonstrate the work of an ‘imitation’ sicario, rather than single, clean bullet through the window or the keyhole; ‘a real sicario has no need to make a person suffer’. He talks and draws with an intense rapidity. Whether he has a penchant for Pictionary or whether it was Gianfranco Rosi’s opt for slight visual relief from the black veil, it adds intensity. He sketches and talks with unhesitant speed, to glance away for a moment is to miss something vital. It’s almost exhausting. The only other visual diversion is the odd panoramic still of the city of Juarez, before the camera returns to the same walls.

The gruesome violence the speaker describes is the stuff often read in fiction or seen on the cinema screen, rather than a reality told. He is energetically involved in his descriptions, even rising to demonstrate the torture and strangulation that took place in the very motel room he stands in, shouting at an invisible presence that’s perched on the empty toilet seat. He doesn’t hesitate to provide gory details. Their job, is to do whatever is instructed without reservation, whether this be to ‘gouge his eyes out’ or to ‘cut off a finger and stick it in his anus’.

El Sicario can hardly be granted top marks for cinematography, but it’s a unique effort to allow the subject complete reign. Sensational subject matter told in a strikingly minimalist format.


This screening was showcased on Wednesday 9th November at the Leeds Town Hall, as part of the ‘Cinema Versa’ programme, courtesy of the Leeds Film Festival

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