Rating: 4 out of 5.

(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz)

When lives are on the line, human behavior tends to grow overly dramatized through the eyes of cinema, astraying itself from many unseen truths of the human experience. Overly reactionary characters are entertaining to watch, but appear shallow and naive in their writing as a result. This is when silence becomes louder than words: when we realize that the silence of death is more haunting than the uproars that follow. Films that can attach themselves to reality in such an intricate way allows us to cling closer and attach ourselves to them. Rotting in the Sun captures its audience in this way, in how director Sebastián Silva uses experimental filmmaking techniques to bridge this gap between reality and the silver screen, with mortality at the center. Using this down-to-earth approach as a jumping off point, viewers are slewed into a continuous spiral of chaos, self-scrutiny and misanthropy.

Sebastián (Sebastián Silva) is at rock bottom; k-holes and poppers are his lifeline. His studio apartment is littered with phallic, unfinished art at every corner that screams something of a starving artist. Pulled out of a drugged trance by his wingman, Mateo (Mateo Riesta), Sebastián gets extremely irritable, rejecting everyone in sight, including his friend, his maid, Vero (Catalina Saavedra), and the construction workers who constantly work on his apartment. After some all-too-lighthearted banter about suicide, Mateo suggests Sebastián takes a vacation to a nude beach in Zicateca, and he leaves at the drop of a hat.

As he tries to relax in the midst of other gay men hitting on him to no avail, someone starts drowning. Sebastián rushes into the water to make a meager attempt at saving them, but after nearly drowning himself, ends up sparking a relationship with Jordan (Jordan Firstman), the influencer he tried saving. It turns out that Jordan is familiar with Sebastián’s work in film, and pitches his narcissistic, insufferable sounding series “You Are Me” to Sebastián’s dismay. After a night of bonding over partying, public sex, and hard drugs, Sebastián explodes and dismisses Jordan as a clown before storming off. Days after his getaway, Sebastián finds himself pitching ideas to HBO. They won’t buy any of Sebastián’s more exuberant ideas, but seem to love Jordan’s “You Are Me.” Put in a financial corner, Sebastián calls up Jordan, and they arrange to collaborate on the idea at Sebastián’s studio. In a way that sweeps viewers by surprise in a sudden bout of tragedy, Sebastián is not present to greet Jordan, leaving Jordan feeling uneasy in Sebastián’s lowly apartment. Day after day, Sebastián is still nowhere to be found. Jordan sparks a search party that goes viral, even calling Sebastián’s family in desperate efforts to find his friend. All the while, he has a sneaking suspicion that Vero’s odd and erratic behavior has something to do with Sebastián’s disappearance. 

While the synopsis may sound like a conventional (albeit nihilistic) cover-up story at a glance, Sebastián Silva’s writing and direction twists it into something truly subversive at its core. A constant thread of porn and phallocentric art make this visually true as well, with a long, full-frontal nude beach scene aggressively boasting its unforgiving vision. But bear with me here, because there’s a carefully crafted narrative core with a surprising amount of profundity buried beneath its vulgar surface.

Free-flowing story beats unfold on their own time, leading the overall timeline to feel like a true experience lived by people we get to know on a personal level. An ever changing vantage point shifts the audience’s perspective between characters after extended intervals, offering deeper insight into their development, and adding impressive amounts of dimension and empathy. I was pleased to see Jordan’s influencer character not reduced to an irritable attention seeker (which made me brace for the rest of his performance at first, perhaps intentionally) before growing to show a care for others that is satisfying to see. Catalina Saavedra’s convincing performance as Vero sways one from the get go, and led me to feel nostalgic of other women I have known like her. Later on, a gripping plot twist and added pretense suddenly turn Vero into the engine of a heavily weighted story. Characters that one knows in such detail justifies the cynic philosophy intertwined throughout the plot, from Sebastián’s reading of “The Trouble with Being Born” in his cognitive search for fulfillment. Placing a magnifying glass on their emotions, this omnipresent lens we are given yields a pleasantly personal outlook that leads its regular meditation on death and suicide to feel more responsible and profound. 

The characters we get such deep insight into are not entirely fictional, either. Jordan Firstman, Sebastián Silva, and Juan Andrés Silva integrate themselves into the film by playing characters named after themselves, showing their dedication to the creative process in a display of on-screen vulnerability. The meta-humanistic process used both behind and in front of the camera proves that its themes dealing with self-perception and communication are explored with honesty. While impressive, this auteurist creative process makes it all the more susceptible to its flaws. Flashbacks are used in an obnoxious, even comedic way. The pacing sometimes lulls a little bit too much and occasionally gets repetitive. The conclusion may not be as explosive as one expects, given the long buildup, but it is tonally consistent, which I found in good taste. In the end, it manages to bring its emotional underbelly to the surface and stays humble in its pragmatic depiction in what could otherwise be described as a tale of insanity.

When I discussed this title with other festival attendees, it already proved to be divisive. As someone who has found that making a movie is not as easy as it looks, I can’t help but look back and applaud the many high-risk, high-reward approaches that seem to pay off. Rotting in the Sun is a Stonehenge of this decade’s indie filmmaking scene. Given viewers are tolerant enough of the nudity and pornographic subject matter, it has potential to catch on with more deeply involved film communities.

Bask in the glory of Rotting in the Sun when it hits digital platforms on September 15th.

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