In El Sicario Room 164, a former assassin describes his experiences working and killing for the Mexican narco-state in a bland motel room on the US side of the border—bland except for the extraordinary charge that comes of the sicario’s claim that he once tortured a man in this very same room. There are at least three frames that count in El Sicario Room 164: Gianfranco Rosi’s unblinking camera and the motel room, both of which suppress context, and the notebook with which the sicario diagrams and occasionally illustrates his firsthand knowledge of the cartel’s systematic brutality. The fact that he is hooded throughout, withholding his identity and what would otherwise be the El Sicario Room 164’s key expressive surface, only heightens the tension between his emphatic storyboarding and the film’s non-illustrative method.
In the latest of Ben Russell’s single-roll declarations of an embodied cinema, a young woman stands against the South Dakota sky. She faces the camera, but her gaze is far-off. Indeed, it’s a measure of our sensitivity to the human face that it only takes about three seconds to pick up on her psychic overflow; her watering eyes and slack mouth register as awe. (Russell confirmed that she was on LSD after a Rotterdam screening of Trypps #7 [Badlands].) The wind seeds chaos in her hair; the sounding of a bell reverberates out towards a big silence; and the camera nervously flutters up and down as if coming unbound in concentration. The portrait is reframed from a lower angle; the parabolic vertical dips gain force. In a sudden bolt, Russell reveals that the shifting perspective is the result not of the camera’s movement but of a swinging mirror that’s being filmed. When the two-sided glass makes a complete revolution, we momentarily glimpse the canyon beyond. The other side of the mirror shows a crack—in our perception too. The woman disappears, and we are left with the mirror’s quickening spin, a figure of intermittence that is simultaneously a metaphor of film projection and, in this landscape and on this trip, an invocation of the American secular sublime.
El Sicario Room 164 and Trypps #7 (Badlands) are mysterious objects: films staked against the self-evident image, risking basic cognitive dissonance as to what we’re even looking at. We are radically confronted by our distance and proximity to the portraits at hand; what we make of it is what we make of it. During the IFFR Q&A, Russell referred to Malick’s abstraction of the Badlands, Spielberg’s close encounters in the same neighborhood, and Michael Snow’s La Région central as focal points for his looking glass film. For me, Trypps #7 recalled those counterculture 70s westerns which chase after an interior frontier, shifting the conversation from myth to mysticism.
Rosi’s film proved less pliable. Writing about it for Cinema Scope, Mark Peranson astutely points to the centrality of trust to the operations of both the cartel and the film. Another word used repeatedly by the sicario is “confidence.” Certainly, questions of confidence shade every documentary presentation: How did the filmmaker earn the subject’s confidence? Does the filmmaker deserve ours? These complicating factors are sometimes elided in the film itself and sometimes dished out as a red herring. Occasionally, they are simply made present. To this ends, an interesting comparison might be made between Rosi’s reflexive document of the concealed sicario and Claude Lanzmann’s use of a hidden camera to film his interviews with former SS men in Shoah. Both filmmakers make sure that we are aware of the specific conditions required for these incendiary testimonials to exist, conditions which necessarily precede our interpretation of the image.
Lanzmann evidently felt justified breaking confidence with former Nazi perpetrators, but as a result sound and image arrive to us in a degraded form. There is none of the fine-grained texture which characterizesShoah’s other interviews; the Germans are not hooded, but remain at least partially masked. Rosi’s negotiation with the sicario, by contrast, was presumably made in good faith (he followed the lead of American journalist Charles Bowden, who profiled the same man in a 2009 article for Harper’s). But while Lanzmann is consistently onscreen, embodying the role of interlocutor as witness, we never even hear Rosi ask thesicario a question. Instead, we are made more directly subject to the constraints of this recording—thus the captive experience watching El Sicario Room 164.
Here a first paradox awaits us: that Rosi’s uncompromising aesthetic results of compromised circumstances. And here too some of the audience will complain that El Sicario Room 164 feels like a hoax and that, in any case, there’s no way that we can verify the horrors the sicario so vividly recalls. These objections reflect a simple bias: we tend not to trust people we can’t see. (But doesn’t this also mean that we’re more easily taken by those we can see?). It’s not as if we can ever rid any film of doubt, but Rosi’s refusal to grant the audience the illusion of certainty is sure to raise hackles.
It’s worth noting that Rosi could have “fixed” the film’s credibility problem easily enough. Imagine that you’re a filmmaker making a documentary about the cartels, and you have the incredible testimony of a formersicario. You know that the corruption, kidnappings and murder he describes have a basis in reality, but you cannot verify the particulars of his accounts. The solution is clear enough: you generalize his testimony by embedding his voice into a feed of news footage, statistics, and charts. The singularity of his claims comes out in the wash. But this is not Rosi’s aim, and we are misled if we think that the sicario delivers his testimony as a disinterested eyewitness. In fact, El Sicario Room 164 cunningly exploits the gap between two of the primary antecedents of the documentary interview: the legal deposition and the spiritual confession. By the time the sicario has dropped to his knees, ecstatically reenacting his conversion experience, we at last realize that he doesn’t envision his listeners as a jury. Like the woman in Russell’s film, the sicario faces down the camera to search out his own soul.
As with the mesmerizing scene earlier in the film in which the sicario demonstrates how he once tortured a “patient” in the motel room’s shallow tub, the climactic prostrations emerge out of the momentum—the passion—of his testimonial act. Is it another paradox that these most revelatory passages of the sicario’s testimony are also the most performative? Regardless, we leave the theater without having been flattered into thinking we now have a tactical command of the borderlands’ intractable violence. If Roberto Bolaño’s 2666—and specifically the ghastly “Part About the Crimes”—seems immediately more relevant to El Sicario Room 164 than anything coming to a theater near you, the same author’s By Night in Chile, written in the form of a deathbed confession, provides an equally illuminating counterpoint. Bolaño’s short novel ends: “And then faces flash before my eyes at a vertiginous speed, the faces I admired, those I loved, hated, envied and despised. The faces I protected, those I attacked, the faces I hardened myself against and those I sought in vain.” There is a line break, the book’s first, before finally: “And then the storm of shit begins.” One hears the same rumblings from Rosi’s film.