How to make a talking-head documentary when the subject’s actual head is the one element that the director cannot film? The default method, much beloved by investigative television journalism, for capturing the testimony of a subject whose identity must remain hidden is to shoot the figure in looming shadows while electronically distorting his or her voice, a strategy that adds a sinister cast to the interviewee’s words while rendering the person behind the recitation hopelessly abstract. In El Sicario, Room 164, Gianfranco Rosi’s riveting feature-length interview with a former hitman for a Mexican drug cartel, the filmmaker strikes a highly productive compromise: While the unnamed subject drapes his head in black mesh cloth (if anything, a more menacing device than obscuring shadow), he’s allowed to speak in his own voice and he’s granted two additional means of communicating that ensure against the depersonalization of his testimony.
As the ex-sicario relates his experiences in the cartel in his (mostly) measured tone, Rosi displaces attention from the man’s head to his hands, the only undraped element, as they scribble away furiously at a notepad. The subject fills the pages of the book with his magic marker musings almost continuously throughout his recitation, not only drawing diagrams to help illustrate the logistics of a specific kidnapping operation, but jotting down key words both important and tangential. The result is a partial overcoming of the (unavoidable) distancing device of the mask, as the visual expression of the subject’s personality is restored, transferred to his seemingly superfluous scribblings whose principal purpose is this very displacement.
But none of this would be of much significance if both the subject’s testimony and his personality weren’t intrinsically objects of keen interest. The recitation itself is a fairly straightforward, if nonetheless hypnotically fascinating, account of initiation from a young age, official corruption and unspeakable acts of torture, complicated only by the appearance of the occasional lacuna that makes following the timeline of the hitman’s career a tad problematic. The question of his character is considerably more troubling as this professed Christian convert is not nearly as remorseful about his past as one would quite feel comfortable with. An engaging enough speaker when sitting on the chair where he’s filmed for most of the interview, the sicario really comes to life when draws on his second means of visual communication, rising up to reenact scenes from his past life.
Relating a three-day torture session that took place in the very motel room where the film is being shot, the subject evinces an enormous amount of energy, assuming by rapid turns the role of both torturer and tortured, recreating phone conversations with his boss with seemingly perfect recall and, even when glossing over some of the more gruesome details, showing a reserve of vitality that one imagines is sometimes missing from his current life as a true believer. Still, for all his only partially regretted past (related most convincingly through the occasional heavy sigh during which Rosi often cuts to a few frames of black leader and via his emotional description of the torture/gang-rape to which women were subjected), his most vivid recreation is the genuinely convulsive tale of his eventual religious awakening. Although we have no reason to take a personal interest in the redemption of this murderous thug and although his testimony is laced with off-putting homosexual slurs (used to describe his initial impression of the ecstatic congregation which he eventually joined and indicative of a possible bitterness over his far less glamorous current lifestyle), this is one conversion that feels anything but perfunctory, mostly due to the force by which the ex-sicario relates his powerful feelings of religiosity, a hefty black-clad lump falling to his knees in front of Rosi’s camera.
It’s in the uninhibited power of this recreation—at least partially held back from the man’s earlier musings—that we see the clearest expression of the latent aggressiveness of the subject’s personality which one imagines helped make him a highly regarded cartel operative. If most tales of the gangster’s life linger on the gruesome details of the trade and tack on the character’s eventual disillusionment and redemption as a somewhat hypocritical afterthought, El Sicario makes sure that the conversion registers as the film’s authentic dramatic highlight, even if, in the violence of its enthusiasm, we can’t quite take the subject’s account for the uncomplicatedly moral conclusion as which he presents it.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 18—March 3.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.