A minimalist study in maximum violence, Gianfranco Rosi’s “El Sicario Room 164” offers viewers the rare chance to meet a Mexican narco hitman and to live to tell the tale. Based on a Harper’s article by Charles Bowden, this pared-down portrait of a repentant assassin’s 20-year career in murder, kidnapping, and torture is captured in one lengthy monologue, with nothing but the interviewee’s words to go by. As such, it’s less sensational than its subject matter, which may limit exposure to fests and pubcasters interested in one of the darker sides of the drug war.
Though we never see his face, “El Sicario” is certainly a formidable character: As a hired killer for cartels operating out of the infamously deadly Ciudad Juarez, he details a life of crime that began with drug running and soon evolved into contract hits numbering in the hundreds. Less frightening than the gruesome details (visually abetted by the murderer’s own, Pictionary-style drawings) are the depictions of a country rampant with corruption and state-sanctioned slayings. While Bowden’s text was filled with stylistic flourishes, Rosi’s (“Below Sea Level”) docu feels all too literary. Tech is apt.