(2023, 109 min)
Country: Mexico, U.S.
Director: Sebastian Silva
Studio: Spacemaker Prod / MUBI
Language: English, Spanish
Sebastián Silva is detached from life, struggling to succeed in the art world and habitually taking ketamine. When he meets social media influencer Jordan Firstman at a nudist beach, the two discuss collaborating, but fate has other plans.
Full frontal male nudity abounds in Chilean director Sebastián Silva’s acidly wry metafiction “Rotting in the Sun,” a comedy of discomfort, co-written with his longtime collaborator Pedro Peirano, populated with awful people drowning in privileged ennui.
Silva embodies an off-putting, pathetic, ketamine-loving caricature of himself—hopefully born of an acute self-awareness and self-deprecation—living in an affluent area of Mexico City. “Only the optimist commits suicide,” he reads from Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born just before trying to prevent his dog Chima from eating human excrement. Seeking an ego boost, he googles himself only to discover that someone else with the same exact name, but evidently more “famous” than him, pops up first in the results.
That Silva’s fictional iteration lives in a building under construction owned by a wealthy and entitled white Mexican man, Mateo (Mateo Riesta), points to the glaring gentrification the Mexican capital is currently undergoing at the hands of American and European “expats” who have taken over entire neighborhoods pushing out residents not only from housing but even from getting service at restaurants. Smaller reminders are also sprinkled throughout: in the background of a latter scene, a white guy speaking English on the phone describes the city as the crossbreed between New York and L.A.
Distraught by his unfilled artistic aspirations and constantly under the influence, Sebastián opts for taking a trip to Zicatela, a popular gay nudist beach. Surrounded by penises of all shapes, sizes, and complexions, he brews in his now sun-drenched nihilism. He wears the relentless thoughts of ending his life like a badge of intellectual superiority. There’s something equally fascinating and hard to watch about Silva putting the shallowness and inner ugliness of a person based on himself on display in such irredeemable fashion. Even if the misanthropy is entirely a performance detached from any truth, it’s effectively acerbic.
With the unvarnished immediacy of a handheld camera, cinematographer Gabriel Díaz takes us into the ocean, where Sebastián attempts to save the life of writer and comedian Jordan Firstman, also playing a take on himself. The near-death, chance encounter with Firstman, who gushes about his love for the director’s work, doesn’t do much to uplift Sebastián’s spirits. If anything, it confirms his feelings on the emptiness of internet culture.
Firstman’s bubbly and insufferably uninhibited on-screen persona clashes with Silva’s tortured and misunderstood artiste demeanor. And yet, given his need for some quick cash to stay afloat, the latter agrees to work on the social media star’s upcoming TV show. Neither of their characters is someone one would want to spend much time with, much less together. “Rotting in the Sun” is a deliberate exercise in tolerance, like most of Silva’s films.
The movie improves exponentially when the focus shifts to Catalina Saavedra’s Señora Vero, the meek housekeeper trying to keep up with the petulant whims of both Sebastián and Mateo and eventually Firstman when he arrives in Mexico City and discovers Silva has gone missing. Here, Saavedra’s performance directly opposes her cunning and defiant work in Silva's "The Maid," which is still the filmmaker's best movie.
In command of an impressive range, Saavedra gives Vero’s fearful reactions and ill-advised decision an urgency absent in the champagne problems of her arrogant bosses. Vero needs the job, but while the scales of power are not tipped to benefit her, she isn’t a woman without any astuteness. When Firstman questions her about Sebastián’s whereabouts through a translator app on his phone, she knows better than to give away the secret that's keeping her employed. Saavedra plays her with such a visceral humanity that it’s easy to root for Vero's success at deceiving him.
Silva’s observations on class often examine his own position as a relatively well-off artist within the existing disparities. At the same time, he exposes the worst impulses of a collection of less-than-upstanding characters with varying degrees of likeability: think of the final, tonally baffling turn in “Nasty Baby” or the menacing white ensemble cast in “Tyrel.” Although “Rotting in the Sun” isn’t revelatory about how little those in the higher echelons of society think about the tribulations of average people, the movie’s forceful way of expressing it achieves its presumed goal: to punch up and mock the fools.
-- Reviewed by Carlos Aguilar, Roger Ebert Reviews (http://www.rogerebert.com)