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'Problemista' Review: Julio Torres' "Fairytale Of Failure"

"New York City" by Pedro Layant via Flickr (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Julio Torres’ surrealist comedy Problemista is a fairytale of failure that uses magical realism to tackle the experiences of migrants in the U.S. Granted, Torres’ use of meme-like visuals carries the risk of trivializing this heavy topic. Yet, his sincere portrayal of the hostile world facing protagonist Alejandro (Torres) manages to sidestep schmaltz. Consequently, the painful experiences of many migrants trying to survive in the U.S. are navigated with empathy, understanding, and insatiable compassion.

The film opens on a Dali-esque playground in the jungle in El Salvador, built by Alejandro’s artist mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), as a nest to keep young Alejandro safe from the brutality of reality. But inevitably, Alejandro flies the nest, moving to New York to pursue his dream of becoming a toy designer for Hasbro. After repeated rejections, he takes up a job monitoring the cryogenically frozen body of the artist Bobby (RZA) whose artwork solely features paintings of eggs. It isn’t long before Bobby’s wife/widow, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), comes hurtling into Alejandro’s life, quickly employing him to locate Bobby’s lost eggs after he is fired, causing him to lose his work visa. She promises to sponsor him if he can find the eggs and create a database on Filemaker Pro, “the Cadillac of archival software” according to Elizabeth. However, balanced upon the volatile, unpredictable scribble of a person that is Elizabeth, the stability of Alejandro’s life in the U.S. and beyond becomes worryingly rocky.

Evidently, this is an idiosyncratic film. From bodies of millionaires being awoken in a pastel-coloured future to a Craigslist siren (Larry Owens) tempting Alejandro with filthy cash-in-hand jobs, Problemista throws a lot at the viewer. But the pivots of Torres’ and Swinton’s performances keep this higgledy-piggledy machine turning. Both of their characters are diametrically opposed. Alejandro is mild-mannered and calm; he bobs up and down as he walks, flowing along the great waves on his path through life. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is like a dragon. Her red frizzy hair and incongruous English West Country accent make her a fierce presence on the streets of New York, with Alejandro barely holding onto her scales as she stomps through the city in pursuit of her semi-dead husband’s lost eggs. With Alejandro’s status between legal and illegal at stake, her fiery attitude oscillates between hilarious and terrifying for the viewer.

This film operates between these two poles, using kooky visuals to switch from funny to frightful. When told how little time he has to find a work visa, Alejandro imagines a vast warehouse filled with sandtimers. Each is assigned to a migrant, with his having just been turned. It is an exaggerated image with a Dr Seuss sense of space to it, yet the urgency of Alejandro’s situation is not diluted among the surreal visuals. Similarly, when a woman is told that her status has been changed to illegal, she simply fades out of existence. It’s a simple effect but the image leaves a lasting sense of bleakness, layering on more tension around the volcanic presence of Elizabeth.

But I think the essential thing about this film lies in its humour. It tackles some heavy themes, but the kooky cutaways and bizarre interactions between even more bizarre characters flavour these themes with affection. Elizabeth is terrifying but it is clear that Torres loves this character. She is vulnerable behind her dragon scales, a woman abandoned by her husband, unliked by most people, and consistently losing her keys in her overfull handbag. A relationship with her is purely a survival strategy for Alejandro when he first meets her but, as the piece progresses, the two are drawn together despite their clashing personalities. By the end, Elizabeth and the troubles Alejandro has faced are subsumed by a comforting love of the unknown, a take that is definitely naïve but also irresistibly charming.

You don’t walk away from Problemista feeling hatred for Elizabeth; nor with a sense of dismay for Alejandro and other migrants consistently beaten down by bureaucracy. It doesn’t ignore these issues; the dire situation of migrants in the U.S. is made clear. Instead, Torres leaves the viewer with a sense of hope, bringing them back to that playground shown at the beginning. The world is brutal and dark, but it is also surreal and playful, with both opposing sides often overlapping. Yes, there are whiffs of Disneyfied positivity here, echoed in the cartoonish visuals, which may not hold much bearing during the internationally dire political landscape of 2024. But to leave a film feeling genuinely refreshed, both in regards to its technical ability and outlook on life, is a rare treat that is hard not to enjoy.


Edited by Humaira Valera


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