Most Beautiful Island (BFI London Film Festival)
Ana Asensio, Natasha Romanova, Caprice Benedetti
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…a fascinating and tense low budget film drawn from real life inspiration.
If you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from, or if paying your rent meant the difference between living with a roof over your head or on the street, what would you be willing to do for money? This is the question faced by Luciana (writer/director Ana Asensio), an undocumented Spanish immigrant living hand to mouth in New York City.
When Luciana meets Olga (Natasha Romanova) whilst handing out flyers for a fried chicken restaurant, Olga offers her the opportunity to earn some quick cash; show up to an address, wear something skimpy and attend a party. No problem. However, when Luciana shows up, something is not quite right and it quickly dawns on her that this “party” is for rich weirdos to exercise their bizarre peccadilloes. Luciana really needs the money, but is what they want her to do really worth it?
Debut writer/director and star Ana Asensio has crafted a fascinating and tense low budget film supposedly drawn from real life inspiration. Set over a single day, the first half of the film finds Luciana struggle in the anonymous throng of the Big Apple, taking odd jobs and failing to get medical attention without insurance. After Olga gives her the details of the job, the social realism of the previous half gives way to a frightening descent into the underworld; as she arrives at the address a hatch in the sidewalk opens up and beckons her down into the darkness of the unknown.
When Luciana is ushered into the “party” in a mysterious basement, she finds she is destined to be part of a distasteful meat market, where her and other women are told to stand inside crudely drawn numbered circles, with chosen candidates ushered into a room, where God knows what transpires. Asensio keeps the audience with Luciana as she struggles to understand her predicament and the tension builds beautifully, along with the mystery of what is just behind that door. When she herself is finally ushered into the room beyond the door the film takes a left turn toward something as particular as it is strange, something that feels not too far-fetched, and is all the more frightening for it.
Asensio manages to balance the sense of realism with a dark surrealism without sacrificing tone or character motivation. The film takes us into a realm of strangeness that feels authentic and manages to be a perfect metaphor for the immigrant experience. The women in the basement are disposable commodities to the wealthy elite who will stop at nothing to exploit the immigrant workforce toward their own ends, in this case, their gratification. Most Beautiful Island is a terrifically well-observed little genre film that is not afraid to go to dark places to hit its narrative beats and reinforce its themes.