Problemista: SXSW Film Review
Problemista takes a surrealist approach to its tale of a struggling immigrant, resulting in a story that’s big on imagination, if light on heart.
Here we are, premiering a new film from A24, the studio of the new Best Picture winner. Despite my feelings towards the Oscars, that still feels really good to say. And given the reactions to the premiere of Problemista (which to me just sounds like a problematic fashionista), it seems the studio will have another critical hit on their hands. I personally agree that the film is definitely good, even if I don’t have the same enthusiasm for it that I’m sure a lot of other people will have. It was, at the very least, definitely not the experience I thought I was going to get.
This comedy stars writer/director Julio Torres as Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador trying to achieve success in New York City. When he gets fired from his day job, he has one month to get sponsored before his visa runs out. So, he finds himself assisting Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an outcast in the art world whom I can only describe as a Karen cranked up to ten. Though she has somewhat of a reason to be so erratic, as she hopes to honor the wishes of her cryogenically frozen husband (RZA) by selling his paintings through an art show.
You might be thinking that a story about art exhibits and immigration policies wouldn’t be that entertaining. But a few minutes in, you’ll quickly see what gives Problemista such a distinct identity: its surreal storytelling and sense of humor. The kind of humor that sometimes portrays Elizabeth as a demonic dragon-like creature when she gets particularly intense, or has Alejandro’s mounting burdens literally weighing him down in the form of giant rocks. It’s a bit of a Charlie Kaufman-like approach to visually representing what the characters are going through without directly veering the film into fantasy or sci-fi territory.
Problemista’s style is also by far its greatest asset in helping you understand and feel what it’s like for an immigrant like Alejandro to be in the position he’s in. Particularly the sheer absurdity of what all the laws and forms require that matches the absurdity of some of the imagery. You bitterly laugh at how he has to, as the film so pointedly puts it, find a way to make money to pay for the chance to earn money. Or how he has to put up with a much more well-off person who acts like her problems are the most dire things imaginable. Or the utter lack of rationality or humanity found in those who run banks and employment offices.
The easy highlight of the entire film for me is a confrontation between Alejandro and a bank employee that, through the distinguished symbolic style, directly and thoroughly mocks the utter corporate B.S. that makes even the slightest mistake fatal because … policy, oops!
I don’t want to give the impression that Problemista is one of the craziest films you’ll ever see, despite its best efforts to reach that status. It mostly pales in comparison to many actual Kaufmann projects or something like Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once (again, that feels so good). But it is definitely funny, and it makes what would otherwise be a film not too many people would check out something that a wider audience of entertainment-seekers can be taken in by. It’s not so insane that I can see it alienating anyone, but it’s out there enough to be fresh to those who crave such a thing. And, similarly to Bottoms, there is a point to all the absurdity that furthers the themes of the story. The production design of these sequences isn’t anything mind-blowing, but it still catches your eye.
I think the reason why Problemista didn’t get as big a reaction out of me could be because I’ve just been so spoiled by all the other crazy, unconventional films I’ve seen, even at South by Southwest. Or, more likely, it’s because I find myself not really connecting to Problemista on an emotional level. A lot of that has to do with the connection between Alejandro and Elizabeth. There’s a lot of humor in watching Alejandro try to keep up with Elizabeth’s gauntlet of problems and demands, especially when he has to improvise skills he doesn’t really know. One of 2023’s top cinematic villains just might be a certain database software … which is a little too real for me. Swinton is, as you’d expect, amazing whenever she goes big and frantic, bringing to life a gigantic nightmare of a person that you love to watch but would dread going anywhere near.
But that makes it really difficult when Problemista asks you to sympathize with her and buy into the friendship between her and Alejandro. They definitely have tension and bitter fights, but there’s clearly meant to be a more heartfelt undercurrent, largely revolving around Elizabeth’s connection with her husband that drives much of what she does. But not only is that connection not all that resonant, but it still doesn’t excuse her behavior to a point where you’d want to be rooting for her or want Alejandro to retain any sentimental feelings towards her. And, with all due respect to Julio Torres, I found his performance to be a little bland. I didn’t feel any urgency or passion from him, until one of his final scenes that pays off his journey in an immensely satisfying way.
Still, my somewhat indifferent feelings aside, Problemista is definitely good. Aside from an overbearingly operatic score that started to get on my nerves towards the end, nothing about the film came across as a huge negative. It’s also clear from how my audience responded that a lot of people are going to really love the ride they’re taken on, and I certainly loved parts of it myself. It’s great to have a topic as regularly sore as immigration portrayed in such a humorous and offbeat, but still poignant, light. A majority of what Problemista sets out to do ends up working and provides a ton of memorable moments, so I’d recommend the film for sure. The degree to which it resonates with you may simply vary.
Problemista premiered at SXSW 2023 on March 13, and will be released by A24 in 2023. Read our SXSW reviews!