‘Problemista’ brings laughs, emotional honesty and magical realism through the American Dream maze

Writer, director and star Julio Torres leads audiences through the whimsy of the human condition and bureaucracy of the immigration system with surrealist comedy.

By Kristen CabreraMarch 22, 2024 2:52 pm, , ,

In the new film “Problemista,” writer, director and actor Julio Torres whimsically traverses the maze of the American dream through the U.S. immigration system. His character Alejandro desires to become a toy designer for Hasbro but must secure a sponsor though a work visa, he tells the Texas Standard.

“That story is told through a magical realism lens,” he says. For Torres, the whimsy and sparkles are essentially at his core.

“It’s completely my default,” he says. “I never really intend to have it be that way and that’s just the way it comes out. In fact, so many times I wanna write something that is so bare bones, easy, cheap and then stuff like this [“Problemista”] keeps happening.” 

Courtesy of A24

Torres who, like his character in the film, is from El Salvador and likewise dealt with immigration visa issues on his road to become an artist, much like Alejandro. In the film, Torres’ character climbs through a staircase-like maze as he talks with an immigration lawyer about his visa status, depicting some of the catch-22s within the system.

However, despite the direness of the subject matter and high-stakes for the hero, Torres’ absurdist visuals and deadpan writing – coupled with Isabella Rossellini’s delightful narration – are meant to make audiences laugh and smile throughout.

“I mean it’s about being completely emotionally honest, right?,” Torres said. “ I never set out to make a tragic documentary about immigration and I am a very optimistic and unserious person. So that just felt emotionally true and that’s how it came out. That’s how I metabolized [my] experience.”

Torres said our own specific experience and viewpoints are numerous and if someone chose to make a film the virtual opposite of his on immigration, it would be equally as valid.

“Which is not to say that a glib, pessimistic, sad drama about immigration is not right if that is how the creators experienced it,” Torres said. “We all come from different circumstances. We all have been dealt different cards, and this is how I happen to use mine. But it just felt very honest to find the joy in it.” 

Another emotionally honest point in the film is Alejandro’s relationship with Tilda Swinton’s character, Elizabeth – a fire-breathing monster of a person.

“[She] plays this manic, deranged, erratic art lady who is on a warpath with everyone. No waiter is safe, no customer representative escapes her. And she is the only one who has offered to sponsor my character with a work visa,” Torres said.

Courtesy of A24

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton star in "Problemista."

“Its the kind of person that we all know, that we’ve all experienced. But I think, due to circumstances, my character is just tethered to her and is exposed to her longer than most people are because most people just walk away. And so he learns to see all the other layers, all the other parts to her that are hidden.”

Torres takes an optimistic look at an experience that few would dare.

“I like to think that’s something that can happen in real life. I’ve certainly experienced where I go from being in awe of someone to being in fear of them, to hating them, to loving them,” he said.

Torres also manages to lay out this road to empathy for the character most folks can find frustrations with and who has maybe just 2 minutes of screen time – Estefani, a Bank of America representative.

“That’s the thing about our stories, right? That there’s no one villain. It feels like there is no face to the system that are crushing us,” Torres said, noting an exception of politicians. “In our day to day life what we experience is the foot soldiers for these systems. But then it just takes a little thinking to realize that these people are in their own way trapped.”

Courtesy of A24

"Problemista" also contains many surreal and magic realism elements.

Torres worked with his friend and actor River Ramirez on the short, but memorable, scene.

“Just seeing the emotional journey in her face and just seeing how she must suppress empathy in order to survive… Because if she is forgiving bank fees left and right, she might get fired,” he said.

As far as directing his first feature film and juggling writing and acting in it as well, Torres credits the support of friends and coworkers around him on “Problemista” and project like “Los Espookys” during his time on Saturday Night Live. 

“We uplift each other in ways that are really stimulating,” he said. “I’ve been privileged. By the time I started doing this project I had been on so many sets and learning a lot and had worked with directors that never explicitly said they were teaching me something but provided me an access that was very much an education.” 

Torres was not originally slated to direct, but after some gentle prodding by co-star Tilda Swinton and support from the production team, he took the helm.

“I felt very closely held and very supported and it actually felt like it made it easier for me to do all those things rather than trying to communicate a vision to someone else.”

“Problemista” premiered at South By Southwest in 2023 and is out now in theaters.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.