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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Chiller Killer Confession
by Donald Levit

El Sicario, Room 164 is an information-companion to more widely seen “based-on-a-factual-incident” fiction compatriot Miss Bala. The question is whether, despite eight international Best Documentary awards and endless Official Selections, it is film at all in the usual sense.

An unidentified border city, local roads, a supposed safe house (where scores of bodies are buried) and red unnamed motel door with a 164 plaque are together maybe a minute of the eighty otherwise entirely of one man talking, drawing, reenacting scenes he describes. Not that the story is not objective, chilling and repulsive, but that it is more a camera-recorded one-man stage play with a single setting.

“Sicario” derives from a Jewish Zealot sect that assassinated Romans in first-century Palestine and is today slang for a professional hired killer. “164” is the room chosen by the subject -- who is not an interviewee -- because the very place where many of his atrocities actually occurred. One might question the truth of the hit man’s accounts, but elsewhere director/cameraman/co-producer Gianfranco Rosi maintains that in person the speaker cannot possibly be the world’s best actor but is entirely convincing in leaving no room for doubt. Moreover, the work grew from an article by journalist friend co-producer Charles Bowden -- credits have the film “by” both men -- who for two decades has covered that border area and vouches for the talker’s authenticity and veracity.

Retired, unrepentant and with a wife, daughter and $250,000 contract on his head, he is on the lam from criminals and likely also policía and políticos. Thus the understandable no-names, though once he appears to slip, assuming the Boss’ telephone voice in addressing himself as Paco.

The camera enters the nondescript motel room on the first floor, the man turns away to don a black mesh hood and settles into an easy chair dressed in black down to his shoes. Talking from the get-go adjusting the hood, he continues non-stop, unprompted, with a few blank dark frames here and there cutting the monologue.

Shortish and a bit squat, he cradles an unlined notebook and, except when up reenacting actions, constantly writes in it to illustrate, from stick drawings of people, cars and houses to street plans, diagrams, and numbers. Implicating local and federal police and politicians to the highest levels and -- no less but not as often -- their U.S. counterparts and agencies, he uncovers the mortiferous multizillion-dollar multinational drug trafficking organization.

Proud of his skills, distancing professionals like himself from killers for the pleasure of it, he considers their pay -- in cash and in cars, luxury houses and women, to use though not to own -- and recruitment as adolescents in selective police instructional academies. Fifty of two hundred are on cartel salary by graduation day, with more enlisted subsequently, so that law-enforcement techniques and weapons are as much the traffickers’ as the law’s.

He has been mainly an enforcer, kidnapping and torturing those who welched or stole from or betrayed the Boss. Though it was strictly impersonal business, he did not relish suffering for its own sake but, taking both sides of an imaginary telephone conversation, reenacts threats, bathtub waterboarding, immersion in boiling water, strangulation, dismemberment, with doctors called in to revive victims for more.

The stubby fingers drawing and the acting out of methods have a cumulative horrifying effect. To a media-benumbed world, images of blood have less weight than this horse’s-mouth account of what particular warnings any of various bodily mutilations are meant to carry. A summary of his family black-sheep upbringing and of poverty are wholly inadequate justifications, while his later remorse is neither for crimes committed nor their victims but for allowing himself to lose freedom in being used by higher-ups.

No longer able to live in the alcohol- and drug-fueled stupor which allowed him to function, and alarmed by his nightmare violence that came within a hair of killing his wife, he breaks up his family of three for safety and finds religion in one of the Pentecostal churches that have invaded Latin America. Audience forgiveness is one thing in the Catholic self-humiliation for Mexican chauffeur Marcos of Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, but quite impossible for this true-life monster. His one-man dramatization is not a film, but surely an indictment. Rosi’s “grey zone where good and evil meet” is wide of the mark; this is pure evil.

(Released by Icarus Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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