Sebastián Silva wants to die. That is Sebastián Silva, the fictional artist protagonist of Rotting in the Sun, written and directed by real-life Chilean auteur Sebastián Silva. Enthusiasts of self-referential film, welcome to paradise.
Sebastián, however, is trapped in the depths of hell. He’s creatively blocked, depressed, and plagued by debilitating insomnia. He tries to ease the pain by shoveling his nostrils full of ketamine (to no avail). When the baggies inevitably run dry and he sobers, he roams the halls of his claustrophobic Mexico City apartment, doom-scrolling online in search of methods to painlessly commit suicide. He’s closely overlooked by his doting maid Vero, who, in another act of meta-casting, is played by Catalina Saavedra, the star of Silva’s 2009 Sundance award-winning breakout hit The Maid. This interweaving of reality and fiction in casting immediately gives Rotting in the Sun a raw, hyperreal quality that only heightens its sense of dread.
Everyone in Sebastián’s orbit sees he’s barreling toward catastrophe. His manager thinks a seaside vacation at a gay nude beach could buoy his spirits, so he sends him off to relax. To get laid, one can dream. But Sebastián struggles to unwind along the shore, realizing that despite leaving Mexico City, all his problems seemed to have snuck into his luggage. He can’t even allow himself to partake in all the sexual revelry surrounding him, of which there is no shortage. The frank nudity and sex scenes here are bound to generate controversy and have prudish viewers clutching their pearls. At this beach, hands are not the go-to appendage to shake upon meeting a stranger. Silva’s depiction of sexuality somehow never feels sensational, except for a few amusing moments when the camera strains to catch a glimpse of some action beyond his view.
Sebastián’s death wish almost comes true when he nearly drowns in the ocean, only to be rescued by bubbly social media influencer Jordan (Jordan Firstman). In a final stroke of meta-casting, Silva has comedian Firstman play a version of himself. Firstman attained internet fame early in the pandemic for his viral videos impersonating inanimate objects — from playing the publicist of banana bread to the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head during one of the 2020 Vice Presidential debates. Here, Firstman plays his trademark irreverence to exhaustive extents, making Jordan the perfectly cheerful foil to keep Sebastián from indulging in his favorite hobby next to ketamine: self-loathing. Jordan’s advice — varying iterations of “stop caring about what others think of you” — may often ring hollow, but he’s not wrong. His uninhibited spirit even starts to infect Sebastián. Temporarily, at least, until Sebastián returns home and realizes, rather cynically, that enlisting an internet celebrity like Jordan as a “collaborator” could help his stalled television projects gain traction with social media clout-obsessed development executives. His scenes pitching projects to the vapid executives over Zoom make for depressingly realistic, biting satire. Silva is acerbic in his indoctrination of social media and its overinflated role in green-lighting projects, which keeps Rotting in the Sun veering too far into tortured artist territory — a line the film periodically straddles. Jordan and Sebastián’s arrogant musings about art and commerce feel intentionally grating, but rarely amount to any potent commentary beyond cyclical bickering.
Then everything changes when Sebastián invites Jordan to stay with him in Mexico City so they can begin working. As Sebastián and Vero prepare for Jordan’s arrival, a shocking freak accident sends the film on a different trajectory with a new perspective — both for the better. When Jordan arrives in Mexico City, he’s surprised to find Sebastián has gone missing. As Jordan slowly grows suspicious of cagey Vero, Rotting in the Sun spirals into something of a lo-fi thriller. Your patience from here on out will vary on your reaction to Sebastián’s whereabouts, but Saavedra’s dynamic performance is undeniable. Her work here recalls another recent turn wherein dire circumstances propel an unassuming character to the forefront — Dolly De Leon’s commanding ascent to power in Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness. Saavedra grabs the film by the throat in its back half, white-knuckled, and doesn’t let go until its final enigmatic scene.
Rotting in the Sun is an unabashedly raunchy, genuinely shocking comedy of the darkest persuasion and a thrilling indication of where Silva’s headed next.
Rotting in the Sun is screening in the Premieres section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute