El Sicario: Room 164 (2010)

You won’t believe that a documentary centering entirely on a masked man with a notepad in a motel room can be so compelling—and harrowing—as Rosi gives us a shocking exposé on the inner workings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,162

Dir. Gianfranco Rosi
2010 | USA/France | Documentary | 80 mins | 2.00:1 | Spanish
Not rated – likely to be at least M18 for mature themes

Plot: In a room of a grubby hotel near the Mexican-American border, a man with a black cloth over his head starts providing full details on his 20 years of work for a Mexican drugs baron, shedding light on how thoroughly corrupt the local authorities are.
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize & Biografilm Award & Nom. for Orrizonti Award (Venice)
International Sales: Doc & Film International

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing – Drug Cartels, Torture, Murder, Corruption
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

El Sicario: Room 164 is like The Act of Killing (2012) if it was set in Mexico and stripped down to its barest minimum.  It could also be Gianfranco Rosi’s finest film. 

Firstly, you won’t believe that a documentary that spends its entire duration (save for a few cutaway shots of the Mexican landscape) on a masked man with a notepad in a motel room can be so compelling—and harrowing—as he makes one stunning revelation after another about the inner workings of drug cartels in his country. 

It is a shocking exposé by a former hitman as he describes in vivid detail his daily life as a ‘sicario’.  As he talks, he also scribbles words and draws shapes and stick figures on the notepad. 

It’s almost like he’s teaching a class, and this didactic approach, if one could call it that, is what makes Rosi’s work so simple yet fascinating. 

The anonymous sicario shares how people are tortured and killed in the most excruciating of ways, even demonstrating how certain techniques are used. 

If you might already know about how the Mexican police are corrupted and complicit in the activities of the cartels, wait till you hear what this man says. 

Rosi has made a number of highly-acclaimed documentaries over the years in different parts of the world such as Below Sea Level (2008) in the US, Fire at Sea (2016) in Italy, and Notturno (2020) in the Middle East, but it was here in Room 164 somewhere in Central America that he found his biggest pot of gold. 

Grade: A-


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