Problemista takes place in a universe where a call to customer support can spiral into a telenovela-style showdown, where bureaucracy traps people in infinite loops of Escher-like offices, and where Craigslist takes the seductive form of actor Larry Owens—who knowingly whispers “Bowflex” from within a web of trash. 

In this way, this first feature from writer-director Julio Torres is to be expected. Torres is behind some of the most queer, surreal, and over-the-top sketches in the history of Saturday Night Live—eg. "Wells for Boys," "Papyrus,"—and the most fairytale plot lines of Los Espookys. But Problemista is also a remarkably honest account of what it’s like to live in the US as a certain kind of immigrant.

Alejandro (Torres) is not so different from any other person navigating the big dream/big city/tiny apartment/no money gauntlet. He’s just also stuck in the bizarro-world universe of US immigration, where some people buy citizenship outright, others pay thousands of dollars in fees while trying to prove that they have “exceptional talent” that the US has a shortage of, and others are sponsored by an employers—the most affordable route, but also the most capricious, since if that job goes, so does the work visa attached to it.

Julio Torres (left) and Tilda Swinton (right) in "Problemista." © FreezeCorp LLC, courtesy of a24

That last approach is what happens to Alejandro. After losing his job, he falls into the orbit of Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton chewing scenery at the maximum setting), a tyrannical art critic trying to mount an exhibition of her dead husband’s bad art in order to continue to pay for his cryogenic storage. 

Alejandro is convinced Elizabeth can be persuaded to sponsor his visa if he can help her in her quest. This seems unlikely from the start. She screams at waiters, gondola operators, Apple support, and Alejandro with the kind of selfishness that is aided and abetted by insane privilege. She has a country house, plus two homes on different continents, one of which is a New York loft filled with discarded takeout, printer cables, and old high heels. She never offers to pay Alejandro, and sends him off on errands that require the kind of money that he doesn’t have. 

She is every white lady who has ever thoughtlessly downloaded a monologue in your direction, or demanded to speak to your manager, plus infinity. When she tries to make small talk it’s clear that back and forth dialogue isn’t something she’s put a lot of work into. “El Salvador,” she says, upon learning where Alejandro is from. “Pupusas! And those nuns they killed in the '80s!” She grins like a child waiting for a compliment.

Alejandro nods, slowly. In his flashbacks, El Salvador is simply a lush backdrop for the big house that he lives in with his architect mom (the legendary Chilean actress Catalina Saveedra) and the elaborate castle she built when he was a child, to his exacting specifications. In comparison, New York City looks like a dumpster.

The central question of the movie is really why does Alejandro stick with Elizabeth, even when she nearly transforms into a literal hydra? Sure, she’s Tilda Swinton—but Torres is writing all the parts here. 

One interpretation:  Elizabeth is America—or a particular kind of America, anyway. She’s messy, mean, selfish, unfair, coasting on unearned privilege, nepotistic, vindictive, petty, occasionally kind. If you read profiles of Torres, or listen to interviews, you’ll notice that many of the events in Problemista map closely to his own life, with fairytale flourishes. In this fable, though, the protagonist doesn’t so much defeat the witch as learn how to use her powers, the same way that a person might study another language.

Problemista is playing at Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre now and will be widely released March 22.