Sundance 2023 Review: Sebastian Silva’s “Rotting in the Sun” Finds a Director At His Best on His Worst Behavior

At least for the first half of “Rotting in the Sun,” it would be hard for a devotee of Sebastián Silva to know how someone who hasn’t been following along might react. The writer/director, who has increasingly inserted himself in his work after his dark comedic breakout “The Maid” a little over a decade ago, is front and center in his latest, deciding no pseudonym is necessary to play the suicidal filmmaker taking hits of the animal poison pentobarbital to relax when his name isn’t the first Sebastián Silva to come up a Google search. He isn’t asking for pity, but rather patience when he heads to a beach where he’s saved from drowning by Jordan Firstman, the real-life Instagram favorite, only to want to die again when Firstman wants to pitch him on an idiotic TV show amidst a bevy of naked men eager to have sex with one another and he’s just not feeling any of it.

It would be easy to immediately feel the same when Silva, behind the scenes, pushes everything to its limit with how obnoxious Firstman becomes, the seemingly unsimulated sex that occurs all around the two of them at the unglamorous hedonistic resort they’re staying at or swinging around the camera as violently as he throws punches towards his own career — Firstman believes he’s ingratiating himself to the director by claiming it was kismet that he saved him the night after watching “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus” for the first time when “no else else has.” However, Silva may deliver his biggest payoff to date by holding the audience in discomfort for the longest time in “Rotting in the Sun” until the action moves back to his home studio in Mexico and he goes missing, but his maid Veronica (Catalina Saavedra) and Firstman, who arrives planning to work on their show, are left to consider his whereabouts.

Silva doesn’t include himself in the film in vain, by any measure, when he and co-writer Pedro Peirano have used his position as an artist of note but limited renown for a clever commentary about the entertainment industry he’s reluctantly a part of, frustrated in having to compete for attention with the likes of a social media success such as Firstman, who gets instant viral success with absurdist clips of himself as a “publicist for banana bread,” and giving into some of his worst instincts formally in that first third, both personal and artistic, in a bid to appease what he thinks people want from him. When “Rotting in the Sun” begins, he’s in front of the camera, but there’s an intentional feeling that he’s lost behind it when shock value is prized, and upon exiting the frame, his gifts as a filmmaker really shine as the groundwork is subtly laid for a reckoning between Veronica, who is wilting under the pressure to spill what she knows about Sebastián’s disappearance, and Firstman, who makes for a wonderfully clueless Columbo, clumsily using real-time translation on his phone to converse in Spanish with others to hilariously awful effect.

Silva is still without peer when it comes to outrageous set-pieces and unburdened by trying to make a rating – this is surely an NC-17 if it ever makes it in front of the MPAA – his imagination really runs wild. But his mind for madness extends to playing the long game when fans will appreciate that the film becomes all but a stealth sequel to “The Maid” with Saavedra essentially reprising the title role, bringing back the furtive glances and irresistible psychodrama that made him someone to watch in the first place. Although the filmmaker surely isn’t serious in toying with the notion that the world would be a better place without him, “Rotting in the Sun” is irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

“Rotting in the Sun” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd at 9:30 pm at the Rose Wagner Center in Salt Lake City, January 26th at 5:55 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City, January 27th at 6:15 pm at the Eccles Theatre in Park City, January 28th at 9:15 pm at the Holiday Village Cinemas in Park City and January 29th at 3 pm at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.

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