Rotting in the Sun, 2023.
Co-written and directed by Sebastián Silva.
Starring Sebastián Silva, Jordan Firstman, and Catalina Saavedra.
Follows social media celebrity Jordan Firstman as he starts a search for filmmaker Sebastian Silva who went missing in Mexico City. He suspects that the cleaning lady in Sebastian’s building may be involved in his disappearance.
Sebastián Silva (The Maid) may ultimately have bitten off more than he can chew with his new movie, but the Chilean writer-director bites with such ferocity that it’s tough to care much. If sure to annoy and agitate its fair share of viewers through its sheer formalistic and narrative bombast, Rotting in the Sun was nevertheless one of the more excitingly unpredictable films to play Sundance this year.
Sebastián Silva (Silva, playing himself) is a filmmaker in the deepest throes of depression; the first time we see him, he’s Googling painless suicide methods while hoofing ketamine. To try and bring him back from the brink, his manager sends him on holiday to a gay nudist beach, where he’s saved from drowning by social media influencer Jordan Firstman (also as himself). The hyper-active, never-stopping Jordan wants to team up with Silva to produce a comedy series, and once HBO shows interest so too does Silva. Yet when Jordan turns up at Sebastián’s Mexico City abode, the filmmaker is nowhere to be seen, sparking an increasingly desperate man-hunt as Jordan comes to suspect that the housekeeper, Vero (Catalina Saavedra), is hiding something.
Even the best critics are prone to a little hyperbole amid the frenzied hubbub of a film festival, but let it be known that, without exaggeration, Rotting in the Sun is an absolutely deranged piece of filmmaking – and mostly in a good way. This is a film that begins with, in addition to the aforementioned Googling episode, Silva attempting to stop his dog eating a homeless person’s feces, and being admonished by bystanders for it. That really sets the tone for what’s to follow.
Silva’s film is idiosyncratic and obnoxious by design, from Jordan Firstman’s outrageously frantic dialogue to the chaotic, seemingly intentionally sloppy filmmaking. With a roving camera, choppy editing, and less-than-perfect focus-pulling, this is an unvarnished experimental project with all the words capitalised, but also touts a manic energy that’s alternately unnerving and hilarious.
The opening act of the movie, a prolonged, orgiastic fever dream on the gay nude beach, touts an outrageous amount of full-frontal male nudity, Silva even deliberately pointing the camera downwards at penises which would’ve otherwise not been in-frame. It certainly makes for an interesting spin on the male gaze that someone, somewhere, might keenly write academically about one day (or not).
And this is without getting into the bewilderingly meta construction of the whole project. Nobody outside of art-film cineaste circles has any idea who Sebastián Silva is, so the notion of him playing himself in a film likely to receive little airplay outside of film festivals is itself both odd and deeply amusing, especially as Silva seems very much in on the joke.
Things take a highly unexpected turn at the start of the second act, and without giving the game away, Rotting in the Sun mutates into something quite different, which only amplifies Silva’s central targeted thematic of narcissism in the social media age and how people will literally commodify anything they possibly can.
If perhaps a tad long at 109 minutes – especially during its fattier middle section – this is a welcome bucket of cold water for anyone worn down by Sundance’s tasteful indie film typicality, topped off by a finale which puts a gut-bustingly funny exclamation point on all the mayhem.
Acting-wise this isn’t begging for Academy Award consideration, but Silva fares surprisingly well playing a strung-out version of himself, while Firstman is a hypnotic presence as an exaggerated sketch of his own social media persona. But it’s Saavedra who, as Silva’s depressed, overworked housekeeper regularly steals the show, forming a picture of scarcely contained anxiety as the central mystery scenario becomes ever more sweaty-palmed.
Sebastián Silva’s unhinged new black comedy may be rough around the edges and too long, but prevails as an entrancingly strange, oft-hilarious outing that touts more male nudity than all the Jackass films combined.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.