Formerly Known As Cinema



Image courtesy of MUBI

“Rotting in the Sun” is as hilarious and raw and sexually explicit a film as you are likely to see this year. It’s also a deeply personal statement about love and death from Sebastián Silva, a rogue filmmaker working outside the system. It’s as far from Hollywood as you can possibly get, which is reason alone for celebration.

In Sebastián Silva’s 2009 film “The Maid,” Catalina Saavedra plays Raquel, an alarmingly loyal servant with an insane work ethic.

When her excessive use of chlorine bleach starts to cause fainting spells, and her concerned employers hire a second maid to help around the house, the fiercely territorial Raquel engages in some disturbing and hilarious psychological warfare to ensure her supremacy.

It’s a marvelous, layered performance, full of nuance and surprise, for which Saavedra won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Now, fourteen years later, writer/director Silva has cast her as a maid again in his latest film, the savage and brilliant sex comedy “Rotting in the Sun.” Here, however, her character Vero is a decidedly less diligent worker.

Standing around with a rag in her hand looking beaten down and confused, Vero barely notices that the cluttered and unkempt apartment she oversees doesn’t seem to get any cleaner. The bathroom trashcan never gets emptied, the beds stay unmade, and though she spends a lot of time in front of the kitchen sink with the water running, the piles of dirty dishes remain untouched.

But it’s her accident-prone nature that causes the most mayhem and drives the cruel engine of Silva’s shocking, twisty plot.

Right out of the gate, Vero ruins a series of brand new paintings by her boss, the depressed filmmaker Sebastián Silva (played with delightfully irritated exhaustion by the filmmaker himself).

Image courtesy of MUBI

Sebastián is riding an epic bummer. Short on money and inspiration, he spends most of his time googling ways to commit suicide, snorting lines of Ketamine and lying on his bed with a baseball cap over his face.

And what’s a morose single man to do? Why, go to a gay beach resort of course. Where clothes are optional and public group sex is de rigueur.

It’s here that Sebastián meets Jordan Firstman, a funny but irritating Instagram celebrity played by... Jordan Firstman (a funny but irritating Instagram celebrity).

The meta nature of having Silva and Firstman play themselves probably adds a layer of frisson to those already familiar with their work. But it’s the least interesting aspect of the film, occasionally injecting an unwelcome dose of self-consciousness to the proceedings.

A prickly friendship develops between the two men, setting up what appears to be an ‘opposites attract’ romance, with Firstman instantly smitten and Silva just wanting to be left alone.

Meanwhile the non-stop orgy of fabulously graphic sex scenes continues to explode from every corner of the screen, staged with a frank and uncompromising eye, with dozens of naked men offering a veritable smorgasbord of assorted penis shapes and sizes.

What’s even more shocking than the plethora of dangling appendages is the refreshing normality of the body shapes. These men look like actual human beings, with not one set of washboard abs or sculpted pecs anywhere to be seen. It’s a lovely break from cinema’s usual grotesque idealization of the übermensch.

Jordan Firstman, who is a terrific filmmaker in his own right (check out his two smart and funny shorts, “Men Don’t Whisper” on YouTube and “Call Your Father” on Criterion) is also an appealing screen presence, with an easy sensuality and magnetic confidence that draws us to him regardless of how obnoxiously he behaves.

Image courtesy of MUBI

And it’s no small feat to play an unapologetic gay buffoon without ever descending into the reductive dead end of camp. Firstman, Silva and the entire cast are to be commended for showing us it’s possible to create broad comedy that eschews the rote, reductive clichés of queer stereotypes simply by keeping things honest.

For its first half hour, “Rotting in the Sun” is the funniest film of the year, delivering consistent belly laughs of jaw-dropping outrage.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the movie changes course so suddenly I had a hard time recalibrating my expectations.

But Silva is a master of structure, and here, as in “The Maid,” he revels in the feint and parry, setting up assumptions like ten-pins ready for the inevitable strike.

Rather than taking us through the proven permutations of the romcom for the millionth time, he shows us the relatively uncharted territory of how a person finds their humanity.

In “The Maid” we got to watch as the robot-like Raquel learned to bypass her programming and blossom into a real human being. And seeing Saavedra’s controlled physicality and blank stare modulate into a semblance of genuine warmth as she smiled for the first time, a glint of happiness flickering in her deep set eyes, was an acutely moving experience.

In “Rotting in the Sun” it’s Firstman’s dopey YouTuber who finds his humanity, transforming over the course of the film’s densely plotted intricacies from flighty goof to heartbroken Romeo, all the while discovering, much to his surprise, that he’s capable of depth.

Image courtesy of MUBI

In the second half of the movie, Saavedra’s maid character, Vero, steps to the fore, allowing her to showcase the tense physical comedy she excels at.

As she gets herself into deeper and deeper hot water, her panic turns to hysteria and the movie ratchets things up to a nearly unbearable degree of tension.

It’s here the film finds its richest vein of comedy in a series of conversations between the English-only speaking Firstman and the Spanish-only speaking Vero.

One of them is seeking answers, the other is purposely obfuscating. And they are assisted, badly, by a smart phone translation app that turns every communication into an ever more ridiculous game of Telephone.

To reveal more about the story is to risk spoiling the immense pleasures of Silva and co-writer Pedro Peirano’s delectable plot.

Suffice it to say that though it ends up in a place we could never anticipate, “Rotting in the Sun” provides one of the most satisfying endings of any film this year.

Most surprising of all, however, is how hopeful the movie feels. Not because the behavior and events on display are particularly cheery or beautiful, quite the opposite: Between all the unsexy sex and the buckets of effluvia, not to mention the coprophagic dog (Google it), there’s enough onscreen horror to curl the hair of the stoutest libertine.

Image courtesy of MUBI

But the attitude of the filmmakers is so palpably joyful, so knowing, and filled with such self-effacing awareness, it transcends the casual unsavoriness of the imagery.

Silva and company have found a way, through a clear-eyed acceptance of the world as it is, to take the sting out of being alive.

They seem to face the worst news head on, saying, in effect “Yeah? What else you got,” before going about their business with an enlivening degree of surety.

In other words, the end may be nigh, but at least there’ll be some great films before we get to the final fade out.



An LA-based playwright, JUSTIN TANNER has more than twenty produced plays to his credit, including Voice Lessons, Day Drinkers, Space Therapy, Wife Swappers, and Coyote Woman. His Pot Mom received the PEN-West Award for Best Play.

He has written for the TV shows Gilmore Girls, My So-Called Life and the short-lived Love Monkey. He wrote, directed and edited 88 episodes of the web series Ave 43, available on YouTube.

Tanner is the current Playwright in Residence for the Rogue Machine Theatre in Hollywood, where his most recent play Little Theatre, of December of 2022, was met with rave reviews. Charles McNulty of the LA Times writes, "Engrossing... a comedy à clef... “Little Theatre” is invaluable.'"



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