The irony of Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva is that he gained his tremendous Sundance arthouse popularity by making movies that seemed only to be for himself. Films such as The Maid, Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus, and even his most mainstream effort Nasty Baby, were sso esoteric that they weren’t mainstream at all. And I’ll admit, I’ve been a huge fan of Silva’s work, too. My experience interviewing him for Crystal Fairy was one of my all-time favorite Sundance experiences. Silva continues to make movies that are uniquely him, but with his latest Rotting in the Sun he also takes a turn towards being overly provocative in such a performative way it proves distracting.
Silva is clearly having some fun here, though, playing a silly caricature of himself. A depressed filmmaker deep in a creative rut, Sebastián eagerly takes ketomene, Googles offensive stuff openly, ignores prior commitments, and even goes overboard in stopping his dog from eating a pile of shit. To break out of this funk, he’s sent to a gay nudist beach where he damn near drowns in the ocean during an encounter with Youtube celeb Jordan Firstman, playing himself, of course. Jordan’s a big fan, and proposes they team up on a comedy project for HBO. This idea actually seems to get Sebastián perked up again and back into the swing. But when Jordan shows up in Mexico to meet with him, he finds that Sebastián is missing, and his mysterious maid, Vero (Catalina Saavedra), could be behind it.
If you can make it through the libidinous first act there’s a chance of making it through Rotting in the Sun, but Silva doesn’t make it easy. Every decision he makes is deliberately to provoke a reaction, from the shockingly large number of penises on full display to Silva’s eagerness to put them on display. Jordan’s motor mouth is on full throttle and quickly grows irritating as he warns Sebastián about which cocks to avoid while also pitching this terrible idea for a collaboration. These might be heightened versions of themselves but both Sebastián and Jordan are so self-absorbed they’re tough to like, even when their hyper-sexualized banter is pretty funny.
It’s an interesting conceit to see both Firstman and Silva playing themselves as if they are household names the world over. They’re not. Not even close. Silva, in particular, wouldn’t be recognizable in a police line-up even by the most hardened cinephile. But that is one of Silva’s strokes of genius here, as the film embraces narcissism and artifice within the LGBTQ community. At the same time, Silva is an uncompromising filmmaker whose films rarely encompass just one genre; they often start out as one thing then evolve into something else entirely. The same can be said for Rotting in the Sun, which is like a slacker detective comedy for those under the influence. There are some crazy turns Silva takes the audience through and if you’re a fan you don’t want to have anybody spoil them.
Silva’s self-indulgence has long been an issue, even with his best movies, but this is not one of his best and it is a real problem. To be generous, Silva’s acting, playing a drugged-out version of himself…is simply not good. He’s acted in many of his own movies and has never really gotten any better. Firstman is better largely because he’s so good at being obnoxious. Neither is likely to get even an Indie Spirit nomination for their performances, though, let’s just say that.
It’s also hard to shake the feeling that Silva could’ve made Rotting in the Sun as a 30-minute short and it would’ve been an improvement. The hedonistic excesses would be just as impactful, if not more so. But then that wouldn’t be Silva if he made such a compromise. And for all of my criticisms of Silva here, he’s a director whose work is always worth looking forward to because nobody else makes movies like him and that’s a rare commodity. It’s better that he take big swings and miss than not take them at all.
Rotting in the Sun opens in theaters on September 8th.