Credit: Mubi
by M.G. Mailloux Featured Film Streaming Scene

Rotting in the Sun — Sebastian Silva

September 12, 2023

Consistently divisive and successfully provocative, Sebastián Silva had existed in a seemingly charmed space — relative to that of the average, contemporary independent filmmaker — enjoying collaborations with Hollywood-grade talent that have allowed him the means to knock out a number of caustic, contemporary social farces in short order despite boasting material antithetical to industry values. As such, Silva had never truly crossed over, but has managed an impressive run of small-scale pictures — beginning with his second feature, stateside arthouse hit The Maid and up through 2018’s Tyrel — bouncing between his native Chile and Brooklyn, NY, picking at the vapid hipster cultures of both. But following a decade of modest success, Silva’s fortunes took a turn when his social/magical realist drama, A Fistful of Dirt, was shelved by its distributor following dicey reviews at its Telluride premiere, essentially preventing it from being seen by anyone (the film sits at 28 views on Letterboxd as of this writing) and sending Silva into early retirement.

Now, a few years removed from the Telluride debacle and on the other side of the global pandemic, Silva returns to directing (having spent the time in between trying to make it professionally as a painter) with Rotting in the Sun, a meta satire and act of self-critique that pits auteurist ego against influencer id. Naturally, Silva takes on the former role, acting as himself (having previously played versions of himself in 2015’s Nasty Baby and 2013’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus) versus real-life influencer/Instagram celeb Jordan Firstman, who begins the film as comedic foil before evolving into something else entirely. This transformative arc is indicative of Rotting in the Sun’s narrative structure, which sets out as one thing — Eat, Pray, Love by way of Stranger by the Lake — before veering sharply into murder mystery/thriller territory, hinging upon a plot twist best left undetailed, despite the official plot synopsis kind of giving it away. Ignoring the twist in favor of spoiler-free plot description, Rotting in the Sun lasers in on Silva’s post-filmmaking lifestyle, finding the young director K-holed out in Mexico City, living in a temporary, under-construction residence owned by his antagonistic manager. Silva tries to sell his paintings, but is mentally penned in by his fixations with death and horse tranquilizer, not to mention an intense misanthropy fueled by the nihilist writings of Emil Cioran. Convinced to take a break from this self-imposed, doomy existence, Silva heads to a cruising beach where he encounters Firstman, an ostensible fan who insists on collaborating on a new TV project (“Curb Your Enthusiasm, but positive”). Repelled by the hollowness of Firstman’s art (front-facing Insta skits and “impressions” that hardly register as funny) and the nebulous nature of his pitch, Silva mostly mocks and belittles the Internet star (who bravely offers up his actual posts for brutal, accurate mockery), until he realizes he’s run out of money and promptly invites Jordan to Mexico City where they’ plan to write “You Are Me” over the span of the week.

Of course, things don’t quite go as planned, and are in fact derailed long before Firstman touches down in Mexico City, though, as previously suggested, there is some satisfaction to be had in experiencing the casual way in which Silva flips his narrative in real time. What can be said of Rotting in the Sun, without divulging too much of what it has up its sleeve, is largely positive, the filmmaker’s visual ambition remaining modest and serviceable, but his knack for screenwriting and refusal to sanitize his vision ensures that he remains a modern standout. And in Jordan Firstman, Silva has found an unlikely yet ideal leading man, ready and willing to send himself up (perhaps even more so than the director/star) and gleefully submit himself to harsh dissection. Something of a return to form after a quiet attempt at a switch-up, Rotting in the Sun isn’t so much a step forward for Silva as it is a reassurance that he hasn’t lost his way, which, for an artist who’s never overstayed their welcome, isn’t such a bad thing.

DIRECTOR: Sebastian Silva;  CAST: Jordan Firstman, Sebastian Silva, Vitter Leíja;  DISTRIBUTOR: Mubi;  IN THEATERS: September 8;  STREAMING: September 15;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 51 min.