In Julio Torres’ delightfully surrealist debut feature Problemista, a boy anxious to pull off the seemingly impossible meets a woman who has never thought of her demands as improbable. What an unlikely pair they make: Alejandro (played by Torres), an aspiring toy designer desperate for a work visa, and Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a widowed art critic frantically trying to preserve her husband’s legacy. He is gentle, reserved and easily imposed-upon by the cruel challenges of the world. She is exacting, malcontent and has never been told “no” in her life.
Their first encounter is an accident. A rejection from the Hasbro talent incubator program forces Alejandro, a recent immigrant from El Salvador, to take a job overseeing bodies at a human cryogenic freezing company — lest he lose his visa. He’s tasked with watching over the chamber-bound body of Elizabeth’s husband, Bobby (RZA). They are hastily introduced during a visit in which a furious Elizabeth sweeps in like a hurricane to dispute a bill. Radiating stress and agitation, her presence perturbs the other employees. Alejandro finds her intriguing.
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Their next encounter is a work of chance. After tripping on a wire and momentarily disconnecting Bobby’s body chamber from the outlet, Alejandro is unceremoniously fired by management. His dismissal coincides with another visit from Elizabeth — the bill still in dispute, her patience wearing thin. When he helps her move Bobby’s paintings from the storage at the freezer company back to his studio, she conscripts him to curate a gallery show for her late husband’s finely detailed paintings of eggs. With no options, no curatorial experience or working knowledge of the database software FileMaker Pro, Alejandro agrees to the job.
They name the show “Thirteen Eggs” — a literal reference to the number of egg paintings Bobby left in Elizabeth’s care before he froze himself for the future. These large, richly colored still lives depict eggs in action and at rest, hiding behind thick curtains and basking in the shadow of a wine glass. Alejandro and Elizabeth speak of them in the humorously effortful poetic terms of the art world.
The paintings make up one of several wry and charming threads in Problemista, a confident debut whose surrealist ambitions never undercut its heart. Torres, a former SNL writer and a creator of the disappointingly short-lived HBO comedy Los Espookys, uses his distinctive aesthetic to construct a sensitive and keenly observed story of self-actualization.
Problemista unfolds in its own universe, untethered to the logic of our world. Torres, who also wrote the screenplay, bathes us in the layers of his vision: Voiceover narration by Isabella Rossellini lures us into the past, where we learn about Alejandro’s imaginative and sheltered childhood with his attentive artist mother Dolores (Catalina Saavedra); DP Fredrik Wenzel’s sweeping camerawork plunges us into Alejandro’s verdant childhood home in El Salvador before whisking us to the gray, trash-filled streets of Brooklyn, where the young artist now lives; and Robert Ouyang Rusli’s crisp and exciting score propels us from one moment to the next.
The film begins with the fantastical storybook quality of a Wes Anderson film before slipping into the contours of a workplace comedy that calls to mind novels like Ling Ma’s Severance (no relation to the TV show) and Raven Leilani’s Luster. Scenes of Alejandro filming a video resumé or checking in with his manager during his brief stint at the cryogenic lab capture the heightened stiffness and discomfort of office politics.
Before we get too comfortable with that register, Problemista shape-shifts again. Now it’s a comically charged but sobering take on the demoralizing U.S. immigration system. Then a portrait of desperation as Alejandro scrambles to find jobs that will help him pay his immigration fees and make rent. Later, it turns into a sincere tale of his and Elizabeth’s blossoming friendship.
The two start on neither warm nor cold terms. The relationship is, at first, about transactions. Alejandro needs a visa sponsor; Elizabeth, a repository for her anxieties. With time — most of it spent running around New York to recover Bobby’s paintings or with Elizabeth imploring Alejandro to get the database in order — the richness of their connection becomes more apparent. Torres and Swinton play out their characters’ respective affections with understated deftness. Progress in their bond is measured in the harried exchange of voice notes, knowing glances and, for Alejandro, the confidence to eventually stand up for himself and against Elizabeth’s nervous energy and erratic demands.
If I’m making Problemista sound like it’s drippingly sentimental, it’s not. Torres has created a weird and special little film, one that reflects his particular tastes and curiosities. Parts of the screenplay might have let us guess a little more rather than doting on us (as Dolores does her son), wondering if we’ll connect the pieces in this narrative puzzle. Torres’ self-assurance is more apparent in the absurdist asides and details he scatters throughout. A visual focus on hands, an elaborate maze as a metaphor for the labyrinthine immigration system and a sort of alternate universe where he tackles his most difficult conversations and decisions — these are the moves that have earned, and will continue to earn, Torres an enthusiastic fanbase. They are the flourishes of a director with an enviable imagination, a filmmaker who is stubbornly and admirably working on his own terms.