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‘Problemista’ Is a Surreal and Surprising Tribute to Dream-Chasing

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A youthful Latino man wearing a blue shirt sits at a table next to a lightbulb-shaped lamp.
Julio Torres wrote, directed and stars in ‘Problemista.’ (Jon Pack/ A24 via AP)

There is a scene in Problemista where Craigslist becomes an actual physical entity. The listings website is personified by a large flamboyant man floating in space. Wrapped in junk and tech garbage, he whispers intensely about sex work in one breath and Ikea Billy bookcases the next. Strange though this may sound, this entity is acutely (and hilariously) familiar to any human that has ever casually browsed that website.

This kind of surrealist vision is not unusual in Problemista even though the movie is grounded, at its core, in harsh realities. In the film, Alejandro (Julio Torres, who also wrote and directed it) is an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador who takes an unpaid job with Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) after losing his U.S. visa. Alejandro is childlike, moves through the world in tiny hops like a cartoon, and is full of dark whimsy. (He wants all of the toys he designs to have “tension and intrigue.” Like Cabbage Patch Dolls contending with bitchy text messages, and snakes that leap out of cans with signs attached to them that read: “I’m sorry, I was trapped in this can and scaring you was the only way out.”)

In contrast to Alejandro, Elizabeth is harsh, entitled and tightly wound in a way that’s unbearable for almost everyone in her vicinity. Still, the two strike a deal: If Alejandro helps Elizabeth put together an art show of her deceased husband’s work, she will sponsor his immigration application. All of which might make for a bleak story were it not for Torres’ penchant for embracing weirdness.

At one point, the quagmire of immigration law becomes a series of floating diagonal boxes that must be navigated via trapdoors and vents — a little bit like an un-winnable game of shoots and ladders. These small moments of surreality don’t just serve as an engaging way to tell Problemista’s story, they make the circumstances of the main character more viscerally relatable.

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In addition to the mind-bending scenery, Problemista is elevated by an exceptionally funny script. Many of the best lines are served up by Swinton leaning full force into her character’s casual indifference to other people’s hardships. (Her utterance of the line “There is an underbelly of closeted fishermen” is, in particular, a masterpiece of dry comedic acting, but her tone stays on point throughout.)

Once upon a time many years ago, I — like Alejandro — worked as a personal assistant in New York City. Like Elizabeth, my boss was an eccentric, blunt, supremely demanding woman who owned a variety of homes in expensive places. At the time, I was a broke freelancer with a variety of immigration issues, hustling to make ends meet and living, like Alejandro, in Bushwick. To say I related to this movie would be a gross understatement. By this story’s unpredictable — and surprisingly heartwarming — end, however, I realized that the themes of Problemista are actually very universal.

Problemista is a story about the hardships that come with chasing your dreams — any dreams at all. It’s about the inhumanity of gratuitous bureaucracy and needlessly complicated technology. (FileMaker Pro is a running joke throughout). It’s about how, so often, wanting to work in an artistic profession makes one’s life more difficult, but also infinitely more joyful. Ultimately, Problemista is about finding lessons and friendship in unusual places, slaying personal dragons and the importance of standing up for yourself.

If it’s not already obvious, this movie contains multitudes. (I haven’t even covered Isabella Rossellini’s delightful narration or the side storyline about cryogenesis…) And presented through Torres’ eyes, Alejandro’s difficult but dreamlike little world becomes a joy to visit — even when it’s being partially operated by Craigslist demons.

‘Problemista’ screens at select San Francisco theaters on March 8, and nationwide on March 22, 2024.

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