Indelicate slow-burn thriller, Most Beautiful Island is a tragic immigrant story married to a Polanski-esque social horror film. Star, writer and director Ana Asensio filters the angst, hostility and debasement of the American immigrant experience through a seedy thriller film where pressure mounts impossibly minute by minute until it’s unleashed in a jaw-dropping finale, the less said about the better.
Asensio plays Luciana, a Spanish expatriate living in the Big Apple, struggling to make ends meet. Luciana works a few different jobs – handing out flyers in a short skirt and chicken costume, nannying an insufferable duo of entitled primary school children – but she does both visibly poorly, perhaps the result of her “not sleeping” in many nights, one of many little hints about her character slipped into the fray but not given much context nor further explanation.
When Russian friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) offers Luciana the opportunity to make a few grand in a night by working a party wherein “she won’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do” but must show up in a black cocktail dress and high heels, Luciana has dollar signs in her eyes, seeing a way to make rent and not end up homeless and stuck in an even more desperate situation than the one in which she currently resides.
The “party” turns out to be much more than she bargained for and the stress of not knowing what exactly she’s gotten herself into is the heart and soul of what makes Most Beautiful Island such a pounding tension headache of a film. To say anything more would be to unravel the mystery at the center of Asensio’s film and in many ways be its undoing so I recommend going in as clean and untarnished as possible.
There’s not a ton to Most Beautiful Island narrative-wise but the stressors inlaid into Asensio’s telling of Luciana’s plight is a masterclass in tension. No matter which situation she is in – be it one of the kids she’s watching running off, or her trying to scam a boutique out of an expensive black dress, or, finally, when she appears trapped underground with no escape options in sight – Luciana has a way of forcing us to watch her from the very edge of our seats. And perhaps this is part and parcel of the meaning of the film – as an immigrant, everything is do or die. There are no safety nets.
Luciana is a flawed character, surely – what with her nonchalance with screwing over various vendors and cabbies to her general professional malaise to her unexplained but clearly problematic past to her physically violent tendencies with the kids she’s paid to shepherd over – but there is a strength to her that makes her extremely enticing.
Asensio is apt in the role, her resilience palpable, but she proves a more effective director than a performer, painting a picture of a nightmarish decent into the underbelly of high society that would fit comfortably in the ouevre of Kubrick or Polanski with Wides Eye Shut and Rosemary’s Baby, and even Friedkin’s Bug, remaining decent reference points for Most Beautiful City.
Without a lot of meat on the bones, Most Beautiful Island is a minimalist experience in tone and as such is masterfully effective. It’s no shock this won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, it shares an ability to paint full-bodied but unbecoming portraits of peoples with 2015 winner Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, but more than anything it marks Asensio as a writer/director to keep a very close eye on going forward.
CONCLUSION: A deeply unsettling and suspenseful tone poem about the challenges of finding your way in the Big Apple as an immigrant, Ana Asensio’s ‘Most Beautiful Island’ is a sinister experiment in mounting tension that caps off in an insane showdown of will power sure to make just about anyone suffering various phobias squirm in agony.