From its hilarious use of social media montages to the oversized white Telfar bag that seems to almost swallow one of its characters whole, Sebastián Silva’s Rotting in the Sun is the kind of film that would be best served by a review comprised entirely of emojis. And I mean that as the highest of compliments. There isn’t a single frame in the film that hasn’t been meticulously manicured in order to achieve what social media tries to do: create a vision of uniqueness while relishing in manufactured mundanity. That Silva achieves to both criticize the overuse of online personas (particularly in the white gay world) while becoming a piece meant to be meme-d and TikTok-ed into oblivion is truly remarkable.
The Chilean director, best known for his psychedelic dramedies like Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and The Maid, plays a spiritually oversized version of himself, a suicidal filmmaker seeking solace in ketamine while trying to stop his beloved dog from devouring human feces when they go out on walks in Mexico City. Instead of attempting to do what non-experts on the internet often try to do and diagnose mental health issues, Rotting in the Sun doesn’t seek to go to the depths of Sebastián’s depression, instead approaching it matter of fact, as a dark well he must pull himself out of––or not. Why would a handsome, talented, publicly renowned artist be depressed? It’s not necessarily that the film doesn’t care, but that it’s not what it’s about.
With his problems constantly minimized by those around him, his agent/landlord Mateo (Mateo Restra) often refers to him using the feminine form of nouns as slurs (non-Spanish speaking audience members will miss out on this, which surely adds an extra layer of acidity to this dark comedy) and chides him for trying to make it as a painter instead of making commercial works that sell. Exhausted by Sebastián’s nagging and his lackluster works (in the background you can see one of his Keith Haring-esque paintings that reads “die before you die.”) Mateo suggests he goes to Zicatela and kills himself.
Sebastián is so out of it that he doesn’t even know of Zicatela, the stretch of land in gorgeous Puerto Escondido that houses a spot called Playa del Amor (Love Beach) a gay-friendly paradise where Mateo hopes his artist friend will find new inspiration in real life penises, rather than the monochrome versions he paints.
Once the artist finds himself in Zicatela he can’t stop being disturbed by the assortment of penises of all shapes, sizes, and colors that block his ocean view or interrupt his beach read, Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, in which the Romanian philosopher established that “only optimists commit suicide.” Sebastián is given a “second chance” when he tries saving a drowning man, only to almost end up drowning himself. As he’s rescued in a haphazard manner and tries to catch his breath while laying on the sand, he is surprised by someone crying out his name.
But this is no It’s a Wonderful Life, Silva is no Jimmy Stewart, and the yelling man is no angel, but rather Jordan Firstman, the internet personality who has amassed almost one million Instagram followers for his droll impressions of things like “straight French guy who has strong opinions about art.” The hirsute influencer comes up to Sebastián almost demanding he remembers him, and without waiting for any sort of confirmation, pitches him on a project he wants the two of them to do together. After all, Firstman suggests, their encounter is kismet, since he watched one of his movies the previous night.
Sebastián finally lets the insistent Firstman (the very definition of someone who only communicates in word vomit) convince him of working together, he goes back to Mexico City in order to prepare for pre-production. Days later, Firstman arrives only to discover Sebastián has gone missing. Putting on his detective hat filter, he sets out to find out what happened to him as the film goes from social satire into a comedic thriller with the effortlessness of scrolling from a yelling goat (are those still a thing?) to a cursing baby on any social network. Firstman, who at one point establishes that others can’t hurt him because he’s happy, begins chronicling his investigation on IG Live where he eventually describes the missing auteur as his “husband.”
Firstman’s committed performance doesn’t comment on his, or anyone else’s, online persona, rather the actor surrenders himself to what was asked of him and delivers one of the most breathtakingly generous breakthrough performances in recent films. By the end of Rotting in the Sun, it’s impossible not to have fallen in love with him.
In what turns out to be a treasure trove of thespian work, the film also features a dizzyingly brilliant turn by Catalina Saavedra, Silva’s muse in The Maid who gives the only performance that’s not a version of herself, by playing Vero, Sebastián’s maid and unwilling secret-keeper, who might know more about his disappearance than she wants others to believe. Watching Saavedra’s descent into the sort of madness dictated by economic necessity and what she perceives to be loyalty is a thrill.
It would not be surprising if Rotting in the Sun went on to become a cult favorite. Besides being a perfect snapshot of the moment we’re living, it will prove to be a work of art that becomes more rewarding with each viewing. For example, it took me a second to realize the film’s first scene takes place in Rio de Janeiro Square in the fashionable Roma Norte in Mexico City, a public space best known for the recreation of Michelangelo’s David that crowns its majestic fountain––a fitting nod to copies of copies.
During a hilarious conversation, a character wonders out loud if anyone remembers what Scorsese’s last movie was. That the answer to this question will change depending on when people watch Rotting in the Sun is a reminder that the world continues whether we’re in it or not. Artists like Silva, Firstman, and Saavedra just happen to make our stay much more delightful.
Rotting in the Sun premiered at Sundance 2023.