Review: Rotting in the Sun Blurs Lines Between Fact and Fiction, Filmmaking and Social Media

I have a particular admiration for artists like Sebastián Silva, those creators who have an innate ability to channel the weird, experimental and unexpected in order to create, often bringing to life ideas and concepts most people could never have imagined, let alone realized. Just over a decade into his career (per IMDb, at least), Silva has a varied and impressive resume as filmmaker, actor, even script supervisor and cinematographer. His most mainstream (and I use that word loosely) film, 2013’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, is about an American traveling through Chile in search of a particular hallucinogen and, well, things get weird.

Silva’s latest, Rotting in the Sun, blurs creative lines and leans into the weird, too, toying with the idea of fact and fiction and bringing the very real world of influencers into the very strange world of filmmaking. Silva plays himself, or a version of himself, who’s between projects and not feeling great about his life, his work, his prospects. He and his beloved dog Chima live in a dingy artist’s studio in Mexico where a housekeeper, Veronica (Catalina Saavedra), seems to always be about, tidying up this, cooking that, and his landlord (Mateo Riestra) keeps things chaotic with seemingly never-ending renovations.

In order to get a break and figure out his next steps (and hopefully not tumble closer to committing suicide than he already feels), Silva takes himself off to a nearby gay beach where he’s hoping to soak up some sun, read in peace and find his way back to his next creative endeavors. The gays on the beach, however, have other plans. Like a spring break free-for-all, the beach Silva finds himself on is a party every hour of the day, with men in varying states of dress (mostly none) drinking, swimming and cavorting (to put it mildly) in every corner of the tropical locale. In an endearing way, it’s a glimpse into a pocket of the world where unabashedly gay men can be entirely themselves, and though Silva (the character) isn’t necessarily feeling the horny vibe on this particular day, he does find himself in the midst of a crisis when one of the beachgoers starts to drown in the riptide.

Silva manages to get the man to safety, only to discover its Jordan Firstman, a real-life social influencer playing himself; Firstman went viral for clever comedy videos on TikTok and Instagram, and his brand of straight-talk and dramatic flair translates nicely to the big screen. He’s full of personality and charm, and as he and Silva get to know each other, their friendship morphs into a creative partnership with promising potential, to the point that Firstman decides to join Silva at his studio for a week to work on their new project together. But when Firstman does arrive, something is off; namely, Silva is nowhere to be found.

From here, the film becomes a sort of wait-and-see, as the audience is well aware of what’s happened to the filmmaker and we’re hoping eventually Firstman and his friends do, too. The tension rises slowly; at first, Firstman is still inviting friends over and throwing parties at the studio, thinking Silva will turn up and all will be well. But when he finds Silva’s phone and wallet, two key items no one intentionally leaves behind, even Firstman starts to take things more seriously, interrogating Veronica through a translation app that is probably hurting their communication more than it’s helping.

Though Silva, Firstman and the other supporting cast skillfully navigate roles that require a unique sort of self-awareness for a film like this, Saavedra, as the long-suffering housekeeper who’s just desperate to keep her job, is the clear star. For reasons I won’t reveal here, we learn more about Veronica’s life and plight, and as the film progresses, her sense of dread and despair is only exasperated, as evidenced by her pained face and wringing hands. She’s quite literally a fish out of water in this world of men, not exactly familiar (or comfortable) with the drugs, partying and various comings and goings, and the weight of it all starts to wear on her.

At nearly two hours, Silva (the filmmaker) takes his time with the whodunnit of it all, and the film, while entertaining, does start to drag a bit by the third act, with a conclusion that, while satisfying, seems to come from a place of necessity rather than style or narrative. As original indie films go, Rotting in the Sun isn’t exactly something to bring the whole family out to (unless grandma is a fan of nude gay beaches and existential crises, I suppose). But it’s a credit to Silva and this niche corner of the industry that the film exists at all, a seemingly silly little romp with more than a few worthy insights into culture – influencer, gay, artist, you name it.

Rotting in the Sun is now in theaters, and arrives on Mubi on September 15.

Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone