Sebastián Silva wants to kill himself. Jordan Firstman wants to team up with Sebastián on his nascent television project. The parade of horny men at the gay nude beach resort where Sebastián and Jordan meet wants a good time from both, slinging their prominently framed dicks around in greeting, promising non-stop public dalliances supplemented with a ketamine diet. How this set-up transitions into the closest thing to a neo-noir in Silva’s filmography is what makes his new movie, Rotting in the Sun, so special; he pulls off a daring hopscotch from influencer satire to paranoiac tragedy with a nonchalant ease that would feel boastful if it wasn’t so damn good.
Where truth ends and cinema begins is a matter best left to Silva, who, playing a version of himself here, may or may not be calling on his own experiences as a gay man growing up in 1980s Santiago. The truth of the matter is irrelevant to Rotting in the Sun. The movie’s metatext behaves like a Möbius strip made of mirror tiles, each detail looping back on itself while reflecting the others, or maybe vice versa; watch the film three times and each time you’ll walk away with a completely different understanding of what it’s saying, which feels fitting. That’s how social media works, too.
The meet-cute, in this case more of a meet-ugly, between Silva and Firstman takes place during a brush with death: Firstman, caught in a riptide and in mortal peril, nearly drowns, but Silva saves him; having just watched Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus, Silva’s 2013 cringe comedy, Firstman interprets the rescue as kismet. From there, he devotes his every moment to courting Silva in the tradition of grade-school flirting, except instead of making Silva eat dirt, he films him doing drugs and posts it on Instagram for his followers to delight over. Silva, who takes himself Very Seriously as a Serious Artist, bristles at the invasion and ridicules Firstman for his hollow social media spectacles, but eventually relents and agrees to work on Firstman’s series-in-progress, which he promptly ridicules both to Firstman’s face and in his private journals.
Silva eagerly characterizes his screen counterpart as a massive self-pitying asshole who keeps company with other assholes, like Mateo (Mateo Riesta), his friend and landlord, who addresses him with a slur about as often as “Sebastián,” and verbally destroys his paintings to the point that the damage done to them by their perpetually befuddled housekeeper Vero (Catalina Saavedra) doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. Firstman’s gravitation toward Silva feels like a natural phenomenon. But Firstman is a self-described happy clown, and Silva is a sad clown, or at best a grumpy, fun-killing clown; the attraction, one-sided to start until Silva grows desperate to work on a new production, reads as dangerously incongruous.
That element of danger is real, but it doesn’t come from Firstman. There’s an air of Hitchcockian menace hanging over the plot, even if Rotting in the Sun’s thriller side is secondary to the way Silva bleeds performative stances online with performative stances in the flesh. Everyone lies in this movie: They lie on Instagram to build a brand, like Firstman, or they lie to cover up their guilt, like Vero, or they lie to cover up their culpability, like Mateo, which Silva communicates with interstitial cuts between the story’s present tense and the homophobic ribbing he gives Silva in its past tense.
Which is more harmful? The insipid, smug, disposable reels Firstman posts online, or the dismissive, two-faced cowardice Mateo expresses in real life? Rotting in the Sun doesn’t necessarily compare them, per se, so much as equate them. People lie in real life, so they lie online. People lie online, so they lie in real life. (Mateo prefers touching grass over Instagram, but that’s proof of Silva’s thesis rather than a contradiction.)
If Silva has a dog in the clash between “real” and “digital,” it’s communicated through his style, with freehand cinematography from Gabriel Diaz Alliende that’s firmly rooted in realistic immediacy. Saavedra, a longtime Silva collaborator, complements that quality with her own ratcheting anxiety – the most real person in a movie made up of fakers, almost matched by Firstman in the course of his character arc. It takes a shock to the system to draw honesty out of an influencer, and Rotting in the Sun is absolutely a shocker. But rooting himself in the fabrication-friendly space of social media leads Silva, and his film, toward an earnestness that outmatches even his best work to date.
Director: Sebastián Silva
Writer: Sebastián Silva, Pedro Peirano
Starring: Sebastián Silva, Jordan Firstman, Catalina Saavedra, Mateo Riesta
Release Date: September 8, 2023
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.