Movie Review // Problemista at the Brattle Theater
Movie Review // Problemista at the Brattle Theater

Movie Review // Problemista at the Brattle Theater

I saw an early screening of Problemista at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge as part of a partnership between the Independent Film Festival and Cine Fest Latino Boston. The Brattle Theater has so much old-school character so it’s always a treat to go there. At long last I got the chance to sit in the wicker love seat against the back wall under the watchful gaze of the Humphrey Bogart in the Casablanca mural. The theater was absolutely packed, the line before the show stretched around the block and the audience was very excited. Everyone’s already high expectations were exceeded by the surreal, often hilarious film. The viewers laughed almost nonstop throughout its run at the jokes, absurd situations, and bizarre bits. The film was written, directed, and executive produced by Julio Torres, who also played the lead character, Alejandro.

Alejandro is from El Salvador and trying to make a career for himself designing toys in New York City. He needs a work permit and has a constant fear of deportation hanging over his head, so he takes a job with an eccentric art world outcast played by Tilda Swinton. Swinton is pitch perfect as the washed-up art critic, Elizabeth, who has full Karen-esque meltdowns at the drop of a hat. She has a fraught relationship with technology, often struggling to use touch screens or to navigate a computer mouse. When she can’t navigate the photos on her iPad, she calls Apple customer service and dramatically screams at the agent “Where are my photos? You’re erasing my memories!” Alejandro seems to have a knack for placating Elizabeth, he can see past her rants to the suffering inside. Plus, he needs her to sponsor his work visa so he can pursue his dreams of designing toys for Hasbro. The two work together to curate and catalogue an exhibit of her late husband’s egg paintings.

The film is in the magical realism style that leaves a lot open to interpretation. There are more surreal moments like a warehouse full of sand- filled hourglasses that are counting down the time until people get deported, a personified Craigslist played by Larry Owens where Alejandro often searches for jobs, and the mini commercials for the toys he has designed that appear randomly throughout Problemista. For a brief period, Alejandro works for the absurd Freeze Corp which does cryogenics for artists. It’s described as legal euthanasia because at that point in time the technology does not exist to wake up those who have been frozen. When Alejandro loses that job, he is desperate enough to take the gig with the troublesome Elizabeth. This film is an exploration of the gig economy and the toll it takes on people as well as a harrowing depiction of the United States immigration system. The narrator points out that Alejandro has “immigrated to the most competitive place on Earth in hopes of becoming a toy designer.” Alejandro often visits with a lawyer to discuss his situation. The narrator explains in one of these scenes that “the maze is impossible to navigate, unless he is willing to bend the rules.” He is informed by his lawyer that he cannot accept compensation from Elizabeth until his visa is signed, leaving him in a financial bind and continuing his search for side hustles.

Narrated by Isabella Rossellini, the film is full of incredibly talented actors. RZA plays Bobby, Elizabeth’s late husband and the character is so warm and understanding with Elizabeth, it serves to humanize her a great deal. James Scully is adept at playing the pampered Bingham who interns for Elizabeth. Catalina Saavedra plays Alejandro’s mother, Delores. We don’t get to spend a lot of time with her aside from a few flash backs and phone calls, but her love and concern for her child comes across. The narrator says about her “his mother was an artist…she gave him everything, so he wished for everything.” Julio Torres did an excellent job with this film. It had everyone laughing from the beginning to the end but still managed to impart some serious lessons and convey some real moments of humanity. Problemista was scheduled to be widely released in theaters on August 4th but due to the SAG AFTRA strike A24 has postponed the release indefinitely.


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