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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Julio Torres’ ‘Problemista’ masterfully tells the story of a toymaker with big dreams


This article contains spoilers.

Julio Torres’ new film “Problemista” promotes individuality in a world that often stifles creativity. The movie, produced by A24, follows Alejandro, an aspiring toymaker from El Salvador who will stop at nothing to obtain his work visa and make his dreams a reality in the United States. 

In addition to playing the role of Alejandro, Torres also wrote and directed the film.

Torres started his career as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and moved on to produce and act in multiple projects for HBO, including “Los Espookys” and his comedy special, “My Favorite Shapes.”

“Problemista” marks Torres’ directorial debut and his first time writing for a feature film. Though he primarily works in television, Torres approached this new medium with open eyes and abundant creativity.

“I think I’m a very idea first, medium second kind of person,” Torres said in a college roundtable discussion with the Beacon. 

In his projects, Torres seeks to tell stories that are authentic to his life experiences. Thus, “Problemista” manages to grapple with several weighty themes while simultaneously providing the audience with a hilarious script and a lovable cast of characters.

Viewers follow Alejandro through his endless job search, feeling the brunt of his misfortunes and banking on his success. Every microaggression thrown his way serves as a testament to the all-too-real struggle that many American immigrants face daily.

While this film initially intrigues viewers with its bright visual elements and creative storytelling, such as the personification of “Craigslist” as a comedic-yet-frightening jester who appears in multiple nightmare sequences, this movie ultimately tells a much more human story—one about the American immigration system.

In the film, Alejandro struggles to maintain his work visa. Each time he gets fired from a low-paying job, he moves one step closer to deportation. Alejandro doesn’t take long to realize that his time in the country is limited, saying, “Here, if they fire you, it’s like the government flips an hourglass.”

This hourglass metaphor reappears throughout the movie, with the ticking clock getting louder and more intense as he nears the end of his allotted time in the U.S.

“When an hourglass stops, it just stops. It doesn’t make a sound, and that is what to me, in my own experience, immigration feels like,” said Torres, who moved to New York City from El Salvador in the late 2000s. 

In one poignant scene, Ms. Fuentes vanishes mid-air when a visa worker informs her that her time is up. Torres’ creative filmmaking techniques blend realism with outrageousness, successfully weaving a narrative that forces viewers to think far beyond what they see on the screen.

Though Alejandro faces many struggles throughout the movie, both economically and emotionally, he is still portrayed as an imperfect, multi-layered character.

“Yeah, Alejandro has a lot more limitations than his peers, but also why shouldn’t he get to be picky?” said Torres. People that need things are also people that have likes and dislikes.”

In this manner, Torres humanizes immigrants by presenting Alejandro as a complicated individual with a nuanced personality.

In addition to the film’s handling of the complex topic of immigration, “Problemista” also boasts an all-star cast of actors who helped bring this story to life.

The movie would not be the same without Torres’ costar, Tilda Swinton. The British actress plays Elizabeth, a wacky woman who hires Alejandro to assist her in assembling a collection of her late husband’s art. Her husband Bobby, played by RZA, is not dead per se but frozen in a holding facility, waiting for a time when his cancer diagnosis can be treated. 

Elizabeth promises to sponsor Alejandro so that he can obtain his work visa and stay in the United States.

The chemistry between Swinton and Torres is hilariously unhinged, as Swinton’s Elizabeth possesses all the personality traits that Alejandro most definitely does not. While Alejandro has trouble speaking up for himself, Elizabeth thrives off confrontation in every possible manner. She turns every small occurrence into a blowout fight, scolding everyone from baristas to company managers. Alejandro even falls victim to her quick temper on many occasions. 

While Alejandro usually wears a jacket and a T-shirt, Elizabeth manages to procure the most abstract outfits imaginable while sporting a bright pink head of hair. These visual elements help solidify Elizabeth’s quirky personality from the get-go. 

“Tilda brings a physicality that is unlike any other actor, so finding the clothes and the hair and all these things was an exploration,” said Torres.

While Elizabeth’s character has a striking personality and often makes the audience laugh, she also plays a more critical role in Alejandro’s narrative. She is the only character, besides his mother, Dolores, who sees him for his capabilities and potential, not for his limitations. Both characters learn from each other’s mistakes and rely on one another to achieve their goals.

Italian actress and model Isabella Rosellini also plays a pivotal role in “Problemista.” Rosellini narrates the film from a removed storybook perspective, enhancing the film’s fantastical elements and providing viewers with a strong understanding of the plot. 

Her voice possesses the confidence and ease of a mother, with her narration anchoring Alejandro and moving the plot forward even in his darkest moments. This represents the integral role that family plays in difficult situations, such as immigrating to a new country. 

“Problemista’s” script also brings humor into almost every scene despite the seriousness of Alejandro’s situation. For example, whenever someone does something terrible to Alejandro, he somehow apologizes  to them despite doing nothing wrong. This is something that people pleasers universally can relate to. 

These comedic elements also amplify the various symbolic elements that “Problemista” employs in developing its plot. 

One primary piece of symbolism comes in the form of Bobby’s paintings, which Elizabeth and Alejandro try desperately to include in an exhibition. The collection of paintings is called “Thirteen Eggs,” and each painting focuses on a different egg. Elizabeth doesn’t seem to understand the strange nature of her husband’s artistry but instead sees them as a celebration of his memory. 

Torres purposely created the “Thirteen Eggs” collection to contrast the well-known method of counting eggs in groups of twelve, known as a dozen. While the rest of society has agreed that eggs should be counted in groups of twelve, this movie pushes against that accepted truth and presents a new process.

This symbolizes “Problemista’s” overall theme of going against the grain and making a path for oneself in an environment where everything seems all too preordained. 

 “The eggs were both emblematic of hope, and a promise, and the future. Because an egg is an unfinished thing,” said Torres.

Even the film’s name, “Problemista,” is a word that doesn’t follow conventional linguistic principles. The movie was originally going to be called “Problema,” but Torres chose not to go with that title due to its direct translation to “problem,” which seemed too hostile. Instead, Torres went with “Problemista,” which has no direct meaning in English or Spanish. 

“Just like some people are fashionistas, some people are problemistas, and I think I’m a problemista,” said Torres. 

“Problemista” is playing in theaters nationwide and will be available to stream on Apple TV in the coming months.

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