When I saw the poster for Problemista, I wondered why Tilda Swinton–who stars in the film–was on the poster. After seeing this, I now understand. Written and directed by Julio Torres, the movie tackles issues of immigration, and isolation, all packaged in a sweet surrealist bow. Alongside Torres, the film stars Tilda Swinton, Rza, Isabella Rossellini, Catalina Saaverdra, and James Scully.
The movie begins with Alejandro (Torres) as a boy in El Salvador. He’s sitting in a field with his artist mother Delores (Saaverdra) drawing pictures. She shields him from the world by encouraging him to create safe spaces for himself, so the young boy retreats inward where he explores the boundaries of his wild imagination. As an adult, he lives in nyc whose goal is to become a toy maker with Hasbro. The young man has tried many times to apply for work at the company but is denied. To pay the rent, he works at a cryogenic center Freeze Corp, a place where folks go to be put in cryosleep to be revived in the future. He takes care of the frozen body of Bobby Ascencio (Rza) that’s locked in a cryotube and meets Bobby’s wife Elizabeth (Swinton), who shows up in the facility causing a ruckus complaining about how expensive everything is.
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Alejandro sees Elizabeth as a hydra of sorts who antagonizes him often with her erratic fits, so he wears a block of armor in his visions in his fantasies to protect himself from her and the world around him. There is constant reference to this maze of bureaucracy which is depicted by rooms with keys and rooms with lock doors, one on top of each other where he keeps missing the key to break free of the red tape. It’s plain to see why one would see the world this way when the risk of deportation looms over their head. The style of absurdity is a perfect descriptor of how ABSURD the hierarchy is.
Torres has an active imagination and you can tell whatever he is thinking, is exactly what we see on screen. He’s taken a simple story about immigration and human connection, and turned it into a comedic, surrealist fantasy that serves as a critique of capitalism. Even if the concept is kookie, it’s still a style of storytelling that distinctly belongs to Torres as no one would be able to pull this off except him.
The cast is strong, particularly Swinton who is all-in, with the snappy dialogue and outrageous costumes. In Problemista, she’s an entitled super Karen and is everything wrong with American society, but Alejandro uses that to his advantage. As unbearable as the woman is, she tends to get her way even if it is by screaming, gaslighting, and being completely obnoxious. Alejandro understands he can’t fully adopt this attitude, but he can become a problem for others in his own way.
Problemista is about authenticity and learning to be confident enough to take up space. Especially as a person of color who often feel invisible, or feel they must shrink themselves in order to fit in. Sometimes you’ve got to cause a little chaos and let that anxiety push you to succeed, which I’m sure Torres had to deal with a degree of chaos to make this film happen. There is something exciting about seeing your work come to life. The first piece is always the most sincere, and honest, but in order for that to make sense to the audience, the cast has to believe in what they’re doing, which is why this film is a certified hit.
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