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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Reel Critic: “Problemista”

Middlebury showed “Problemista” as part of its Hirschfield Student Programming.
Middlebury showed “Problemista” as part of its Hirschfield Student Programming.

In a mere 98 minutes, “Problemista” captured my heart. Comedian Julio Torres wrote, directed and starred in the surrealist comedy film, which follows Alejandro (Torres), an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador. After losing his job, Alejandro is connected to a funky art critic, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), who promises to sponsor Alejandro’s visa if he can help her present an art show for her late husband. This deal spurs a chaotic journey around New York City as Alejandro tries to fulfill Elizabeth’s wishes to secure his sponsorship. 

The world-building in “Problemista” is exquisite and rich, blending elements of fantasy into the bleak reality of the immigration process. Part of buying into “Problemista” is accepting the film’s strange details; for example, Elizabeth’s husband is cryogenically frozen, and his life work was creating a series of egg paintings. The film is narrated by Isabella Rossellini, which adds to its storybook, genre-bending nature. 

The surrealist tone of “Problemista” shines through a series of whimsical metaphors. Alejandro’s immigration journey is visualized as a maze of cubicles through which he endlessly crawls while an hourglass painstakingly measures his limited time. In one scene, when an immigrant is denied status, she disappears in a poof and the paper she holds falls to the floor. By taking the time to establish this world and its challenges and contradictions, Torres is effectively able to criticize it. 

The filmmaker’s visualizations might seem heavy-handed to some, but they effectively illustrate Alejandro’s journey and bring levity to the film. For instance, as he searches for cash, Alejandro turns to Craigslist, which is personified as a hilariously mischievous sea witch (Larry Owens). The film definitely veers into dark territory at times; I gripped my seat when Alejandro accepted a sketchy job involving an uncomfortable sexual encounter. 

Elizabeth is disorganized, stubborn and mean at times, sometimes presented as a hydra that Alejandro battles. I understand why some critics call “Problemista” a “messy debut” and criticize Swinton’s character as overpowering. At times, I struggled to understand why Alejandro remained tethered to Elizabeth despite her difficulties and lack of assurance about a visa sponsorship. I also found myself curious about Alejandro’s initial journey to the U.S., which is only described as a cave he was tempted into as a child. Ultimately, there is a decent amount of suspension of disbelief needed to appreciate Torres’ kooky creation, which occasionally feels rough around the edges. 

Alejandro is a sympathetic and funny character, and I admired how he navigates such a sticky web of challenging social and economic situations with the unwavering hope of achieving his dream: a job at Hasbro Toys. There are bright spots of kindness throughout the film, from the immigration officer who looks out for Alejandro to the sweet and strong connection Alejandro maintains with his mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), who works as an artist in El Salvador. 

The film features a strong supporting cast as well, from Elizabeth’s late husband Bobby (RZA) to Bingham (James Scully), her privileged secondary assistant. The fabulous Greta Lee pops in for a fun and dramatic scene as Bobby’s former apprentice. Even without full arcs, these side characters add to the colorful nature of the film. 

New York City is a background character itself, from the constant trash to Alejandro’s cramped apartment filled with eccentric, annoying roommates. 

Spoiler: I will say that the ending is pretty zany, which was on par for the rest of the film. Right as it seemed “Problemista” was coming in for a landing, it suddenly veered off in a strange direction before flashing forward centuries into the future in a way that felt a little overkill. I was also not sold on Alejandro and Elizabeth’s friendship being strong enough to transcend space and time. 

Despite its flaws, I loved “Problemista” because it feels fresh and funky while also portraying heartbreakingly real struggles. Being short and digestible, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. It felt like an original piece of media based on lived experience that was spun out in a creative way. Torres packs so much into “Problemista” — and though that might be the downfall of the film — it touches on intergenerational and cross-cultural relationships while telling a story about art, creativity, love and loss. Torres is definitely a talent to keep an eye on.

Charlie Keohane

Charlie Keohane ’24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large. She previously served as the SGA Correspondent and a Senior Writer.   

She is an environmental writing major and a psychology minor from Northern California. Outside of academics, Charlie is a Senior Admissions Fellow at the Middlebury Admissions Office. She also is involved with the women’s track team and hosts Witching Hour, a radio show on 91.1 WRMC. In Spring 2023, she studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, watching Greta Gerwig movies, polar plunging, sending snail mail, and FaceTiming her rescue dog, Poppy.