The world premiere of Problemista screened at this year’s SXSW Conference, which ran for its 37th year, March 10-19, in Austin, Texas. The comedy film relates the trials of Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador.
Julio Torres wrote, directed and stars in Problemista as Alejandro. Torres was a writer on Saturday Night Live from 2016 to 2021, and created the TV series Los Espookys for HBO.
Alejandro lives in New York on a work visa, for which he needs a sponsor. His relationship with the toy company he wants to join goes sour and he needs a new sponsor. The film follows him through his problems with immigration officials and his search for a new job and sponsor.
Luckily – or maybe not – he meets Elizabeth, played be Tilda Swinton (Three Thousand Years of Longing, A Bigger Splash ). Elizabeth, a former influencer in the prestigious New York art world, hires him. But she, erratic, intimidating, and a borderline mental case, is the “problemista” and source of much of the film’s humor.
Torres excels as Alejandro. He encounters treachery in the business world and from the government. Viewers will feel sympathy for his plight and admire his ambition and creativity.
Swinton, as Elizabeth, does an amazing job. I had seen her speak earlier in the day as one of the SXSW featured keynote speakers. During the keynote she said that “I don’t think of myself as an actor.” She said she liked to think of herself as a “performer.”
When the character Elizabeth joined the story, it took me a while to realize that this was Swinton. Her look, her accent, and her hair color were all extremely different from the person I had watched speak a few hours earlier.
Whether she insists on calling it acting or performing, the result was a funny, memorable character who might just end up haunting my nightmares.
Tilda on Cinema
During her keynote Swinton answered questions about her craft posed by Eugene Hernandez, director of the Sundance Film Festival. He had interviewed her once before, nine years ago.
He asked Swinton what was the trigger for her deciding to be part of Problemista?
She answered, “Julio Torres. It’s a thrill for me to have anything to do with Julio. It’s such a thrill to call him comrade. He’s next level, as those of you who know his work will know. But now he’s a filmmaker and that’s really good for all of us.”
Hernandez recalled, “When we were here nine years ago, you called cinema a ‘magic carpet.’ Has that concept evolved for you?”
Swinton replied, “I feel that cinema is even ever more magical. We have had challenges. A couple of years ago, we couldn’t imagine sitting in a big place like this to look at a big screen.
“During the pandemic if you asked people what they really missed they said, ‘Friends, family, live music, cinema.’ This is the one good thing about the pandemic. It’s making people naysay the people saying that cinema was on the way out. It’s given us a boost and the Oscars this year were full of films better seen on a big screen. Cinema is an event. It’s not like sitting on the edge of your bed and pressing a button.”
To find out more about SXSW and how to attend in future years check its website. The festival also shares highlights of previous years’ speakers and events online.