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The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

Express Reviews: ‘Problemista’

A look into Julio Torres’ fantastical world tackling themes from a not-so-distant reality
Graphic created by Neezy Jeffery / [email protected]

Some of the most engaging stories are those in which the hero is not some extremely capable, overpowered figure who can easily overcome anything, but someone so truthfully human, just trying to get by in the world. 


Julio Torres, 37-year-old comedian from El Salvador, explores what it means to be truly human in his film, “Problemista.” The film centers around a character like this, but places them on a stage where most fantasy heroes often find themselves: a world where anything is possible, even immortality, except one specific, practical thing he needs to do.


Released on March 22 and produced by studio A24, “Problemista” is Torres’ first feature film in which he wrote, directed and starred in. Torres plays Alejandro (often referred to as Ale), a soft-spoken young man from El Salvador, immigrating to the United States in search of obtaining a work Visa, with the dream of becoming a toy maker; a character inspired by his own experiences. The film also stars Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth, an absurdly wealthy art snob and villain-turned-mentor, RZA of the WuTang Clan as an artist and husband named Bobby, with children’s book-style narrations by Isabella Rossellini.


From writing some of “Saturday Night Live’s” most bizarre sketches such as “Papyrus” and “Wells for Boys,” to venturing into solo comedy territory with his special “My Favorite Shapes,” — through which he presents a series of personified impressions of inanimate objects “at” his audience — Torres’ sense of humor blends a creative brand of satire with an otherworldly persona.


Comedian and creator of A24 film “Problemista” Julio Torres shows off a toy from his set on his HBO comedy special “My Favorite Shapes.”


“Problemista” explores a character who causes so many problems in order to get something so essential to his success. The film changes the definition of a “problem” into something that is inevitable, and sometimes, needed.


Torres made a wonderful choice by conveying themes like feeling powerless in the face of the system, and holding onto broad dreams, through the use of surrealism and his unique satirical brand of comedy. All its wacky moments served a purpose in intensifying its themes, and the film felt visually and emotionally vivid.


During a college press roundtable conducted virtually by A24 on March 1, Torres laid out the meanings, inspirations and complexities behind bringing his vision to life. 


“I am a very idea first, medium second kind of person,” said Torres. When he was working in television, it felt like he was given, “Two minute jars to pour into what I wanted to pour into, and then with the opportunity of making a movie, I was given an hour and a half to two hour jar.” 


“Problemista” opens with Ale’s childhood home in El Salvador, where he plays around a magical life-sized toy mansion, something out of a child’s dream. It is then set in a surreal and otherworldly version of New York City, where the rich cryogenically freeze themselves to live in the far future. The setting is purely a look inside Torres’ mind, and the whirlwind directions of the story represent Torres extending and expanding on his traditional approach to comedy.


Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel portrays a young Alejandro alongside his mother Dolores, played by Catalina Saavedra, in front of a life-sized toy structure in the A24 film, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.


The best shots in the film came from when the surreal mixed with the reality, such as when multiple people from a New York City immigration office start to disappear as their Visas expire, and when Elizabeth subtly transforms into a red-eyed demon whenever she’s at her worst.


With all of this surrealism, Torres chose for this world to revolve around such an ordinary figure; showing that beyond the layers of fiction, there is a young man just trying to get by. It grounds the film in something so poignantly relatable, especially for those going through similar struggles. 


“Here, if they fire you, it’s like the government flips an hourglass. And grain by grain, you run out of time before you find a new sponsor. And when you’re out of time that’s it.” Ale frantically explains over a pay phone in Spanish to his mother, Dolores, in El Salvador, only to get cut off as time on the call fittingly runs out.


Torres explained this was the best way for him to represent America’s excruciatingly complicated immigration system. “Because an hourglass in itself is not very threatening, it’s not like a bomb,” said Torres, “It’s this silent, faceless gloom that sort of hovers over you, and when the time stops, there’s no explosion. It’s just, you know that you’re out of time and you’re like, now what?”


Not so much time later, the snobby yet completely erratic Elizabeth enters the film and instantly steals the audience’s attention. Elizabeth unexpectedly plays a large part in bringing Ale out of his shell, as she tries to show him that his attempts at passive politeness does not get him anywhere in a world set on taking advantage of those traits — which she herself does on numerous occasions.


Between dealing with Elizabeth’s fierce entitlement and navigating his own personal struggles, Torres included faults within Ale’s character, which in Torres’ view, is meant to humanize those seeking immigration as people deserving of owning and expressing their opinions.


“Yeah, Alejandro has a lot more limitations than his peers have. But also why shouldn’t he get to be picky?” said Torres.


The film’s dialogue encapsulates Torres’ unique comedic style, and gives clearer insight into its characters. Ale looks timid, yet bubbling under the surface is an unusual mind, who pitches the idea of a modern Cabbage Patch Kid wielding a cellphone to represent their parasocial online relationships, to the toy company, Hasbro. And Elizabeth’s argumentative nature fills nearly every scene with a hilarious, tone-deaf rant set against someone just trying to do their job.


Julio Torres as a confused Alejandro next to Tilda Swinton, who plays Elizabeth, struggling to teach her how to create a spreadsheet, in the A24 film, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.


By the end of the film, the audience gets to see the future of Ale’s character, and the lesson that Torres embeds into it. Through Ale’s struggles, the film teaches us to muster the courage to be outspoken to get what you want, and be unapologetic about it — in other words, match the energy of those trying to bring you down. 


There are so many unique moments in the film that make it a worthwhile watch. Most notably, an art exhibition of “Thirteen Eggs,” a terrifying scene about Craigslist, and an ending so surreal it causes all past surreal moments of the film to click into place like a puzzle.


“Problemista” is a film where every scene was ambitious to the point where it risked being on the chopping block, according to Torres. 


“Some people are fashionistas and some people are Problemistas,” said Torres, “And I think I’m a Problemista.”

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About the Contributor
Emma Richman
Emma Richman, Editor in Chief
Emma is passionate about writing in multiple disciplines, such as professional and creative. Emma is primarily interested in writing about news that directly affects Sacramento and its citizens during her time on the Express.
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