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Problemista Is a Magical Realist Fable About the Absurdity of America's Immigration System

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Scene from the movie

Immigration restrictionists sometimes like to say they favor immigration, so long as it’s legal. Why can’t immigrants get in line and follow the rules? The problem is that the legal system is labyrinthine, and the rules often border on the absurd. It’s Kafka-esque—or at least Kafka as filtered through the lens of Monty Python and Charlie Kaufman. It’s existentially terrifying, but also sort of bizarre and at times even quite funny. 

That’s a reasonable approximation of the view taken by Problemista, a magical realist immigration fable about an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador who just wants to find a work visa. That sort of story could easily become saccharine or somber, but filmmaker and star Julian Torres generally keeps the tone light and charming. This too-eager-to-please movie sometimes suffers from a surfeit of whimsy; at times it feels like gagging on rainbows. But the best sequences are quirky journeys into the surreal designed to capture the frustrations of American immigration policy and the seemingly impossible demands it places on those who just want to work. 

Problemista follows the travails of Alejandro, a young man living in New York City who dreams of creating unusual toys for a company like Hasbro. He has a notebook full of ideas, most of which are twists on some familiar toy in which the toy is in some ways broken or altered to make a social point: There are Cabbage Patch Kids with fake cellphones that display their complicated relationships, toy trucks with flat tires, multicolored Slinkys that refuse to climb down the stairs. It’s not entirely clear why any real-life kid would actually want to play with these intentionally mangled things; they’re not really toys so much as gimmicky art projects.

So it makes sense when Alejandro, after being fired from a shifty cryogenic life preservation company, ends up working in the art world for a woman named Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s husband Bobby (rapper and musician RZA) is a client at the cryogenics company, and in conscious life he was a painter; she wants to put on a show of her husband’s paintings, all of which are of eggs. The yolk’s on Alejandro. 

Elizabeth, you see, is not a good egg. Indeed, something in her has cracked. 

As played by Tilda Swinton, Elizabeth is self-absorbed, demanding, and difficult in the extreme, the sort of person who cannot be pleased and always feels wronged by the world. But she offers him a path to something he desperately needs: a work visa that will allow him to stay in the country legally after being fired. So he puts up with her rages and tries to help her stage the show. It isn’t, er, eggsactly easy. 

In the meantime, he has to come up with money to help fund the cost of obtaining a visa—but officially, because of his immigration status, he’s not allowed to earn money. So he resorts to cash jobs found on Craig’s list, which is represented by a sort of cackling, glitching demon character doling out gig work that may or may not pay at all. 

If all this sounds a little bit forced, a little bit over-the-top, a little bit too pleased with itself, well, yes. At times the movie comes across a little like one of Alejandro’s unfortunately designed toys—conceptually clever but intentionally broken, a neat idea that you can’t really play with. 

But the movie is bursting with interesting, weird ideas, and it’s often genuinely charming as well, with its dream-like portrayals of immigration purgatory and the struggle to keep Elizabeth happy recalling Monty Python alum’s celebrated fantasy sequences in Brazil. Torres, who himself was born in El Salvador, has worked as a comedian and writer in the past, but he displays real promise as a first-time filmmaker. Americans and moviegoers are better off that he’s doing his work here. 

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