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‘Problemista’ examines how successes flow from failures

“Problemista” (2023 production, 2024 release). Cast: Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Catalina Saavedra, Laith Nakli, James Scully, Greta Lee, Larry Owens, Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel, Kelly McCormack, Greta Titelman, Theo Maltz, James Seol, Miles G. Jackson, Jason Furlani, River L. Ramirez, Ronald Peet, Carlos E. Navedo, Isabella Rossellini (narrator). Director: Julio Torres. Screenplay: Julio Torres. Web site. Trailer.

Isn’t it amazing how failures can often lead to unexpected successes? Those missteps frequently have a way of opening meaningful doors, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time they occur. An allegedly wrong turn, for instance, may lead us to a fortuitous synchronicity that pays off handsomely at some point – an outcome that may not have occurred were it not for that supposed error. But how readily aware are we that such developments can occur? That’s one of the uplifting insights to come out of the new absurdist comedy, “Problemista.”

While growing up in El Salvador, young Alejandro Martinez (Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel) lived a special life. Under the watchful care of his attentive and loving mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), the imaginative youngster was nurtured in the development of his innate creativity, particularly his ability to devise ideas for inventive toys. In large part this was due to his mom’s dedicated efforts at protecting her son’s well-being, all in the hope that it would help him avoid the kinds of troubling, everyday worldly problems that could end up thwarting his ambitions and talents, not to mention the potential for his success.

Years later, as a young adult (Julio Torres), Ale decides to act upon his dreams by becoming a professional toy designer. He seeks to enroll in a talent incubator program aimed at developing his abilities, an initiative sponsored by the corporate toymaker giant, Hasbro. However, to qualify for the New York-based program, he must be physically present in the US to submit his application, even for an online submission. So he says farewell to El Salvador and moves to the Big Apple. But, to be able to remain there, he must obtain a work visa, something he must maintain for as long as he stays stateside.

Imaginative young Alejandro Martinez (Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel, left) leads a charmed life with his attentive mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra, right), while growing up in El Salvador, as seen in the whimsical new absurdist comedy, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Fortunately, Alejandro lands a job working for a cryogenics company, which serves as his sponsor for acquiring his visa. He serves as a curator for one of the firm’s clients, making sure that the deceased individual’s body remains frozen. But, when a minor mechanical mishap occurs – one that fortunately resulted in no harm to the client – he loses his job, along with his sponsor. Because of that, he has 30 days to find a new sponsor to hold on to his visa and his eligibility to stay in the US. If he fails at that, he faces deportation, as well as an end to following through on his incubator program application – and the fulfillment of his dream.

After being fired, as he’s leaving his workplace for the last time, Alejandro witnesses a heated argument taking place in the company’s reception area between management and an angry client, an eccentric, flamboyant, vociferous art critic, Elizabeth Ascencio (Tilda Swinton). For starters, she’s upset that the company is asking for more money to care for the body of a loved one who’s on ice at its cold storage facility. She’s also irate when she hears about the accident that could have resulted in the thawing of her beloved’s corpse, the incident that got Ale fired. Elizabeth is unaware that the unwitting witness to this exchange was the curator responsible for this nearly disastrous event, but that doesn’t stop her from escalating the dispute to Biblical proportions.

And just whose welfare is Elizabeth so concerned about? It’s her late partner, Bobby (RZA), a young painter who died of cancer in the 1990s and chose to have his body frozen in hopes of making a comeback one day. In the meantime, Elizabeth has become the caretaker of his remains and his artistic legacy, one best known for his collection of paintings of eggs. The paintings aren’t exactly in high demand except among collectors who have developed an acquired taste for their unique character, but Elizabeth is convinced they still have some intrinsic monetary value. So, to help raise money for Bobby’s continued cryogenic curation, she decides to stage a show of the artist’s works. However, given her perpetually scattered focus and an inherent inability to organize such an event, she needs help to pull it off.

Art critic Elizabeth Ascencio (Tilda Swinton, left) shares a tender moment with her partner, Bobby (RZA, right), before his untimely death in actor-writer-director Julio Torres’s debut feature, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Enter Alejandro. Upon leaving the cryogenics office, he strikes up a conversation with her about assisting with this project. She’s open to the idea, but Ale makes a request in exchange for his help – that she hire him and become his sponsor for a new work visa. It’s a proposal that she seems to make a vague agreement to honor, though the details are sketchy at best. Little does he know what he’s getting himself into.

To find out how to make this work, Alejandro visits his immigration attorney, Mr. Khalil (Laith Nakli), who details the requirements that must be satisfied. Alejandro still faces the 30-day deadline to nail down the particulars. Also, while the visa application is pending, Alejandro is not allowed to accept any money from Elizabeth. So, to support himself, Ale must find a job that pays cash, with no paper trail. When he asks his lawyer where he can find such work, Khalil recommends that he turn to Craigslist, a source of all manner of cash-paying jobs. So, with this scenario in place, Alejandro sets out to secure work, his visa and the fulfillment of his goal.

If only everything were that easy.

Before long, Alejandro becomes a “problemista,” an individual who’s prone to continually stepping into one problem after another, all of which become compounded as he attempts to sort them out. And, unlike the conditions under which he grew up, he’s without Dolores to protect him, leaving him to resolve these issues on his own.

While seeking to fulfill his dream as a professional toy designer in New York, Salvadoran immigrant Alejandro Martinez (Julio Torres, left) seeks to strike a deal to help make that possible with flamboyant art critic Elizabeth Ascencio (Tilda Swinton, right) in the whimsical new absurdist comedy, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.

So what is he up against? First, there’s Elizabeth’s unpredictable, stream-of-consciousness thinking, which changes direction more often than the wind, continually launching Ale into multiple ventures all at once. In turn, she questions his competency when he has trouble complying with her whims, prompting her to hire a potentially rival assistant (James Scully) who threatens to take over Ale’s job and ruin his chances at obtaining Elizabeth’s sponsorship. Then there are Alejandro’s interim financial woes, especially when it comes to landing reliable, gainful employment through Craigslist, an entity personified here in a series of surreal sequences symbolized by a sinister, menacing being (Larry Owens). He also has a series of encounters with a string of colorful but questionable characters, including his zoned-out roommate (Kelly McCormack), one of Bobby’s ex-girlfriends (Greta Lee), Elizabeth’s smart-mouthed former assistant (Greta Titelman) and a Craigslist client with a most unusual fetish (James Seol), among others. And all of these incidents are portrayed colorfully and whimsically, with running commentary by an insightful, wise-cracking narrator (Isabella Rossellini).

But, for all of these comic calamities, Alejandro somehow always seems to land on his feet, even if the outcomes invariably end up producing new challenges and mishaps. Is this to be an unending pattern for him? Will his long-held dreams be dashed before he has a chance to realize them? Or will matters find a way to work themselves out? Silver linings can indeed reveal themselves under circumstances like these, but will they?

Despite all the trials and tribulations Alejandro goes through, one can’t help but admire his plucky gumption for sticking with his plan, no matter what obstacles may pop up along the way. That can be attributed to the strength of his beliefs, his conviction to see things through. And that’s significant given the role that our beliefs play in the manifestation of the existence we experience, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these resources are responsible for the shaping of our world. It’s not clear whether Alejandro (or any of us, for that matter) have heard of or made use of this school of thought, but, considering how determined he is and how matters ultimately play out, it’s apparent that he (and some of us) must be aware of it on some level, even if only subconsciously. Otherwise, under conditions like those he experiences, why would he keep going?

Art critic Elizabeth Ascencio (Tilda Swinton, right) seeks to stage an exhibit of the paintings of her late partner with the aid of her eager assistant, Alejandro Martinez (Julio Torres, left) in the new absurdist comedy, “Problemista,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of A24.

However, if he’s so convinced his goals are obtainable, one might wonder why he continually (if unwittingly) imposes all of the roadblocks he encounters in the process of making this happen. Shouldn’t he just cut through the flotsam and proceed directly to attaining the desired end result? Practically speaking, one might say yes, but there may be other considerations to take into account. For example, even if he has a clear vision of what he ultimately hopes to achieve, he may not know how to accomplish it directly. Consequently, he may have to “feel” his way through the process, taking a series of interim steps in which he employs beliefs (and resulting actions) that enable him to piece his way through the experience. An obstacle, for instance, may conceal a blessing in disguise that only becomes apparent as he strips away the camouflage surrounding it. And, as he does this, he bolsters his awareness of how the process works, increasing his faith in it and strengthening his confidence to employ it in realizing his dreams. Progress comes with practice, and that, in turn, allows him to grow more confident and proficient. Ultimately, the product of this is a greater degree of personal empowerment. And, given the innate power of our beliefs, they prove to be a valuable component in the emergence of this development.

This change becomes apparent in Alejandro as his story unfolds. As creative as he might be, he nevertheless is somewhat timid in his attitude and approach, at least initially. Underlying doubts – which are beliefs in themselves – get in the way, preventing him from engaging in the kind of smooth sailing that otherwise might make these ventures flow more easily. He’s susceptible to manipulation under these circumstances, and that can prevent the manifestation of his goals, at least in their hoped-for form. If he wants the results to turn out differently, he needs to get past these conditions and grow into his sense of his own personal power.

The circumstances he encounters thus serve to strengthen his manifestation muscles. Elizabeth’s unwieldy demands and capricious actions, for example, test Ale as he works on developing his materialization abilities. He’s put through his paces as he develops his skills and confidence in himself. The more this happens, the more he succeeds, leading him ever closer to the kinds of outcomes he truly desires. This is where successes begin to emerge from alleged failures. His old, underconfident, reticent self begins to fade away, replaced with a new, self-reliant creator of his destiny. And, for what it’s worth, that’s nothing to toy with, especially when his ambitions finally begin to take off.

While perusing Craigslist to find a cash-paying job, Salvadoran immigrant Alejandro Martinez (Julio Torres, right) has a surreal encounter with a sinister being symbolic of the notorious internet web site (Larry Owens, left), as seen in the new screen comedy, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Imagine all of this at last coming to pass. This debut feature from actor-writer-director Torres provides us with an unconventional, yet hilarious and insightful case study of commitment, empowerment and imagination coming to life. This often-outrageous, wildly inventive odyssey filled with colorful characters and enigmatic situations vividly springs to life on the big screen thanks to its clever production design, imaginative cinematography, and inclusion of surreal and symbolic sequences, making for an edgy yet entertaining watch, an impressive first offering from the former Saturday Night Live staff writer. While there are some instances where the narrative tends to become a little too flamboyantly self-satisfied for its own good, the bulk of the film stays on course and features an array of fine performances from Torres, Swinton and a host of supporting players. “Problemista” was originally scheduled for release in summer 2023 but was delayed by the SAG-AFTRA strike. However, as this delightfully quirky offering shows, the wait was indeed worth it, as it often is for those who encounter seemingly endless snafus on the way to achieving their greatness. If you’re fond of the irreverent, as I am, you’ll get a kick out of this one, an engaging tale that both enlightens and entertains while giving your mind a lot to play with.

Failures – or, more precisely, perceived failures – frequently serve as the keys to opening doors to success. While they may appear bleak on the outside, they often harbor delicious little nuggets that satisfy our needs and give us just what we require to fulfill our desires. And the more readily we become in recognizing this, the more closely (and often more quickly) we move toward realizing our dreams. Armed with this newfound awareness, backed by hefty helpings of self-confidence and personal empowerment, we move ever closer to becoming masters of our destiny and creating a life of tremendous gratification and contentment. And that’s something really worth playing with!

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

One Comment

  1. 98. Responsives Design April 21, 2024 at 8:33 am - Reply

    Fantastic read! I was especially impressed by the depth provided on the topic, offering a perspective I hadn’t considered. Your insight adds significant value to the conversation. For future articles, it would be fascinating to explore more to dive deeper into this subject. Could you also clarify more about the topic? It caught my interest, and I’d love to understand more about it. Keep up the excellent work!

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