Sundance 2023 Review: ROTTING IN THE SUN, Hilarious, Provocative Meta-Fictional Mystery-Thriller

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2023 Review: ROTTING IN THE SUN, Hilarious, Provocative Meta-Fictional Mystery-Thriller

For his eighth feature-length film, Rotting in the Sun, writer-director Sebastián Silva (Tyrel, Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus, The Maid) asks one of the most important, most fundamental questions of our time: How many dicks are too many dicks?

Relatedly, how many dicks, flaccid or otherwise, will alienate straight, mainstream audiences? Whatever that actual number might be, Silva doesn’t really care if anyone on the other side of the screen might be offended by repeated shots of male genitalia in almost every size, shape, or color and — in perhaps one or more scenes — unsimulated gay sex.

Sex, though, isn’t really on Silva’s mind, at least not the fictionalized version of Silva we meet in the opening scenes. When we meet this iteration of the Chilean-born Silva, he’s living modestly in Mexico City, absorbed in a heady philosophical tome, E. M. Cioran’s “The Trouble with Being Born,” in a public park, and thinking seriously about suicide.

That his dog, Chima, interrupts his ruminations by devouring excrement nearby is neither here nor there (or anywhere for that matter), but given Silva’s irritated response, suggests maybe dog ownership isn’t for Silva. It’s also the first, deliberate step in making the fictionalized Silva an unsympathetic character. It’s followed by several more.

Almost immediately, Silva doubles down on his fictional character’s unlikability by treating his long-suffering housekeeper, Vero (Catalina Saavedra), badly, dismissing her with a cruel word and a hand wave. Some of his irritability can be traced, however, to a shaky financial situation and an unsourced creative block, ultimately leading an increasingly despondent vacation to a gay beach, Zicatela, where besides the aforementioned dicks, Silva encounters Jordan Firstman, an American social media influencer who desperately wants to collaborate with Silva on his new project, the typically solipsistic “You Are Me.”

Silva the filmmaker contrasts the Silva character’s brooding, morbid nature, itself something of a put-on or performance, with the Firstman’s extraverted persona. Where Silva prefers taking a deep dive into his philosophy tome, scribbling gnomic phrases into his notebooks, and wistfully staring out into the open sea, Firstman wants everyone’s attention, including Silva’s, to be centered on Firstman and Firstman alone.

While that might make the less-in-your-face Silva slightly more bearable, it’s clear they’re really both sides of the same, narcissistic coin. One’s just louder (Firstman) than the other.

By this point, it’s understandable if audiences decide that just maybe they don’t want to spend any more of their time with Silva or Firstman, and bail completely. If they do, they’ll miss out on one of the cleverest, jaw-dropping plot turns in recent memory.

In the moment it takes to stop paying attention to a seemingly simple task at hand, everything can and does change, leading to a narrative shakeup that puts Vero at the center and Firstman, eventually dropping his me-first persona, deeply concerned for the fate and/or future of another human being.

Putting Vero front-and-center turns Rotting in the Sun from a gay-themed meta-fictional exploration of gay identity in the 21st century into a mystery-thriller that becomes more absurd by the minute. It’s also incredibly funny as Silva, working from a screenplay co-written with Pedro Peirano, tightens the virtual screws on an increasingly frazzled, distraught Vero, often with a suspiciously curious Firstman’s unintentional help. As Firstman’s concerns grow, Silva’s friends and family find excuses, suggesting the self-centered Silva may just be looking for attention or simply going on a ketamine-fueled bender.

The denouement reminds us of the problems inherent in cross-cultural, cross-linguistic communication (a translation app goes wondrously awry), while also leaving Rotting in the Sun on an ambiguous, pitch-perfect note elevated by Saavedra’s anguished line delivery. As Vero, Saavedra proves to be the star of Rotting in the Sun. She’s also a fine actress well-schooled in the art of the hilarious double-take.

Rotting in the Sun premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Rotting in the Sun

  • Sebastián Silva
  • Pedro Peirano
  • Sebastián Silva
  • Jordan Firstman
  • Robert Keller
  • Vitter Leija
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Catalina SaavedraJordan FirstmanPedro PeiranoRotting in the SunSebastián SilvaRobert KellerComedyMystery

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