By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Ana Asensio, Natasha Romanova and David Little
Written and directed by Ana Asensio
Orion Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Films
For the first half of MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND, you might wonder why the heck RUE MORGUE would cover this movie. Bear with it, because the perceptive drama of its first half gives way to some seriously freaky stuff in the second.
MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND is one of those movies where it can truly be said that the less you know about it in advance, the better. Really, you can stop reading right here and know that Ana Asensio’s remarkable feature writing/directing debut, in which she also stars, will give you a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, and to bear with the first half of the story that doesn’t seem to be pointing in any kind of horrific direction. Which is not to undervalue this portion of MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND; Asensio creates a documentary-style reality around her heroine Luciana that’s gripping in its own, unemphatic way.
A Grand Jury Prize winner for narrative feature at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year and a hit at other festivals since, MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND (opening in select theaters tomorrow) is a very eventful day in the life of Luciana, an undocumented Spanish immigrant scraping by in New York City. With full-time employment out of her reach, she makes ends meet—barely—with a series of part-time jobs: Handing out restaurant flyers in a chicken costume here, babysitting a couple of obnoxious brats there. Her partner in the former gig is Olga (Natasha Romanova), who offers Luciana a chance to make some big bucks by stepping in for her at a special gig that night. The preparation is very specific but the further particulars are mysterious, and neither Luciana nor the audience have any idea what she’s in for.
MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND finds the drama and desperation of day-to-day survival in the big city. Shot in Super-16mm by Noah Greenberg, it has the feel of the gritty NYC thrillers of the 1970s and ’80s while being up-to-the-minute in its concerns, though those themes aren’t foregrounded in Asensio’s storytelling. She refuses to either sentimentalize Luciana or politicize her situation, remaining focused on her basic human identity and needs, and the lengths she’s forced to go to fulfill the latter. Even before Luciana takes on that after-hours assignment, there’s an ever-present sense that something could go seriously wrong for her (and one of her tasks briefly does). An icky moment in Luciana’s bathroom might seem to portend worse things to come, though it’s also a basic unpleasant reality that many New Yorkers face.
Once Luciana accepts Olga’s offer and sets off to fulfill it, the suspense begins as basic workaday tension. It’s difficult enough just making it to the gig—acquiring the required black dress (which she can’t afford, and has to scam from a high-end store), going on a sort of scavenger hunt to a grotty Chinese restaurant and getting a cab ride to the location on time. Once she arrives, that’s when Asensio really starts turning the screws, as it becomes clear that Luciana has wandered into a situation that might not be worth the big payday waiting at the other end. It becomes truly horrifying, and also lurid and a bit exaggerated, but by this point the movie has immersed you so totally in its street-level reality that when it takes Luciana below the streets (and that’s all I’m going to say about where it goes), you follow it and her willingly and accept every development that ensues.
Asensio based MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND on her own real-life experiences, and while things become (one hopes) much worse for Luciana than they did for her, she brings both a keen observational sense to Luciana’s everyday life and an unerring skill at building queasy dread to the movie’s latter portions. A production of Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix (Fessenden has a cameo), it may not be as overtly genre as most of the company’s output, but it fits in very comfortably in terms of making the most of limited means and expressing personal themes amidst its dark territory. As a stealth scare flick and just in general, MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND is one of the year’s best films.