Whenever I watch a good film for work, I feel like I’m obligated to write a solid article. I’m not sure if that makes any sense or not, but it is like I owe something to the movie for the kind of memorable experience it has given me. Sebastian Silva’s meta-crime comedy Rotting in the Sun does fall under this category. Cut from the same cloth as Safdie brothers’ madcap caper comedy Uncut Gems (2017), Silva’s anxiety attack of a film is excellent from start to finish, in every possible way. It wouldn’t be wrong of me to say that it has been a while since I have seen a film as riveting as this one.
A lot happens in the opening five minutes of Rotting in the Sun. A man, played by director Sebastian Silva himself, reads a really morbid book while sitting by a fountain. A street musician plays the mouth organ. Another musician starts to sing “Zombies,” the iconic Cranberries song. The man, still reading the book, suddenly notices a homeless man taking a dump. Soon after, he sees a dog eating the homeless man’s leavings. The dog, Chima, happens to belong to the man, who stops reading the book and rushes towards the dog. He scolds the dog but gets lectured by a couple for mistreating the poor animal.
While all this is going on, Silva narrates the book his character is reading, which implies a grave sense of dread. He also takes his mobile phone out and searches for easier ways to commit suicide. While you might think that every single thing here has some sort of significance, that is actually not the case. But it is a brilliant technique to draw you into the world of the movie. You are also given a sense of what is going on inside Sebastian’s head, and it is a lot to deal with. Silva not only narrates the character’s state of mind; by designing a scene like that, he makes the audience feel the kind of anxiety the version of him in the film is going through.
In case I haven’t properly mentioned it yet, Silva plays a fictionalized version of himself in Rotting in the Sun, who has absolutely nothing going on in his misery-filled life and is contemplating drawing the curtains on his own. That is not where the meta-ness of the film ends, though. Popular writer and comedian Jordan Firstman also plays a fictional version of himself in it. This version of Firstman is an Instagram influencer who is a huge deal. The film cleverly touches upon the fact that in this strange world where mediocrity and randomness really sell, an IG influencer is way more popular than a respected film director. There is a scene where Sebastian tries pitching his own TV series ideas to a bunch of very unenthusiastic HBO executives. But the moment he utters Jordan’s name and talks about the possibility of working together, the same people get very excited.
However, that is not what the film is all about. Even though it touches upon so many relevant themes like existentialism, mental health awareness, and the impact of social media on our lives, the main plot of the film centers around one particular incident that randomly happens around the forty-five-minute mark. But after that, Rotting in the Sun completely transforms itself into a very different film while maintaining the same energy. It would be best if you went into this film without knowing anything about it, as I did.
While I think Rotting in the Sun has a very interesting story, it is the way it treats it, that makes the film stand out in the crowd. The viewing experience is jarring, visceral, and not for the faint-hearted. In fact, I believe Silva deliberately made it unpleasant and frustrating for the audience, given that I found myself constantly clenching my fist in anxiety as well as having the urge to scream at the characters. Yet, there are moments that are oddly satisfying. A scene at the very end of the movie where a character shows empathy to another character even in the middle of an extremely tension-filled, pressure cooker-type situation is a testament to that. The film also happens to be very funny, but at times heartbreakingly sad as well.
As the doomed director, Silva is absolutely brilliant here. But if we are solely talking about acting, then Rotting in the Sun clearly belongs to Jordan Firstman. As the influencer who is constantly searching for something substantial, Firstman has given a first-rate performance here. Even though the film starts with Sebastian, in many ways, it should be considered Jordan’s story of evolution. The other significant performance in the film comes from Chilean actor Catalina Saavedra. As Sebastian’s maid, Veronica, she is magnificent in every single scene featuring the character. Thanks to an unexpected narrative shift, the character gets a lot of importance during the latter half of the movie, which only allows Saavedra to show her acting chops. Last but not least, Juan Andres Silva, the real-life brother of Sebastian Silva, plays the twin brother of the fictional Sebastian in the film as well and impresses in his limited role. Juan, who looks eerily similar to Sebastian because he is a twin, plays a very important part in the film’s narrative.
The interesting thing about films like Rotting in the Sun is that they can be perceived differently by different people. Art is always a subjective thing, but especially for something like this, the opinions can be very divisive. One might completely reject what the film is trying to sell and throw it in the trash can, while another can hail this as the greatest film of the year. I guess I have made it quite clear in the article that I am more inclined to endorse the second opinion. But it is completely understandable if this thing fails to work for you. I don’t really like to use phrases like “not for everyone,” but in the case of Rotting in the Sun, it actually seems like a valid one.