Most Beautiful Island

Review by Anton Bitel @AntBit

Directed by

Ana Asensio

Starring

Ana Asensio David Little Natasha Romanova

Anticipation.

Heard good things, and like islands.

Enjoyment.

Long day’s journey into skin-crawlingly tense night.

In Retrospect.

The plight of America’s dreaming paperless, in devastating diptych.

Ana Asensio gives an assured debut as writer and director with this haunting story about a migrant woman in the Big Apple.

This film opens with scenes of the morning pedestrian rush in downtown New York. It is a series of crowd shots, each with a different woman at its centre. By the time the camera has settled on Luciana (Ana Asensio, who is also debuting here as writer and director), we are not sure what connects her, beyond her sex, to all these other women. We are, however, already under the impression that hers is just one face in the crowd, with an experience shared by many and a story so timeworn that could equally be someone else’s.

The film follows a day (and night) in the life of a vulnerable yet resourceful illegal migrant haunted by the pain and guilt of her young daughter’s death back home. Luciana struggles to build a new life below the radar with hand-to-mouth jobs, and to get her nausea and nosebleeds treated without medical insurance – in the land where, as her new friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) puts it, “anything is possible.” Yet so great is Luciana’s grief, despair and lack of self-worth that while having a bath, she accidentally releases a nest of cockroaches into the room and neither flinches nor flees.

“I am having nightmares again,” is Luciana’s first line in Most Beautiful Island, spoken into a phone (its credit ticking down) to her mother far away. The film’s ironised title is also a message scribbled by Luciana on an insistent rent demand that she has folded into a paper aeroplane and sent flying out her shared apartment’s window to the cityscape beyond. Her dreams too, very much of the American variety, are right there for her to see, yet always beyond her grasp – whether in the affluent privilege of the two demanding young children she babysits, or in the haute couture stores whose goods she cannot afford.

Risk and opportunity come when Olga offers Luciana a highly paid and potentially regular gig to attend a party in a cocktail dress. “It is not what you are thinking,” Olga reassures her, and indeed, it will turn out to be something else, more akin to Luciana’s nightmares, as the social realism of the film’s first half gives way to an altogether more genre-bound affair in the basement of a New York building. There Luciana will not only join all the women glimpsed in the film’s opening sequence, but also find herself making unwelcome contact with another female group brought in illegally from abroad, and exploited at the whim of elite sado-spectators.

In the skin-crawlingly tense scenes that ensue, the everyday danger and helplessness of life as a paperless migrant is transformed into an “entertaining” game of chance. These later sequences are reminiscent of Géla Babluani’s 2005 film 13 Tzameti in which a clutch of poverty-stricken men gravitate to the countryside to play Russian Roulette as a means of economic survival. Asensio’s film ends near the point where it began, on the streets of New York, during the wee hours of the morning, and focusing on a poster that reads, “Big Apple, Big Dreams”. By now Asensio’s grippingly double-edged tale has exposed that dream to be rotten to the core.

Published 30 Nov 2017

Tags: Ana Asensio

Anticipation.

Heard good things, and like islands.

Enjoyment.

Long day’s journey into skin-crawlingly tense night.

In Retrospect.

The plight of America’s dreaming paperless, in devastating diptych.

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