Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island is a stormy, unpredictable endurance test from start-to-finish. At its core, immigration fears and female perspectives sing a plight of New York City’s rough waters. Command and circumstance manipulate those less fortunate, who will do anything to survive. Undocumented “citizens” walk alongside more entitled Americans, yet their experiences are so disconcertingly different. Do they always involve a life-threatening game of chance, as Asensio’s film engages? I would assume – maybe incorrectly – that answer is no. But still, given cinematic context, messages of tenacity are read loud and clear. Strung with tension, and heated to an aggressive boil.
Apart from writing and directing Most Beautiful Island, Asensio also stars as lead subject Luciana – a New Yorker with many responsibilities. Because she’s undocumented, most of Luciana’s work comes from odd-jobs paid in cash. Babysitting bratty kids and whatnot. Either that, or she scams her way through New York until karma eventually catches up. Money is hard to come by when you fear being deported, but Luciana’s trendy friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) has a solution to her economic woes. If she shows up to a random location dressed in black, Luciana will be rewarded. No questions, answers or details. Beats the hell out of living another night in poverty, right?
Most Beautiful Island stands next to another SXSW entry from this year, The Transfiguration, as an example of NYC-specific thrills. Cinematographer Noah Greenberg disregards a high-def, crystal-clear lens, instead opting for the grimy, 90s-grunge filter that’s painted so many Big Apple indies. Something more personal; like a tape pulled from Luciana’s home movie collection. There’s never an attempt to clean experiences with camera-ready upgrades. As Asensio peels duct tape from her cracked wall, cockroaches scurry out of a now-opened hole and into her bathtub. This is the America so many underprivileged masses face, as Luciana barely reacts to the disgusting conditions of her reality – because chances are, they’re still better than where she escaped from.
Asensio’s performance is her strongest quality, leading us down a confident road that deviates into hard genre territories. Luciana’s day starts like so many, but by the time night falls, advantageous shortcomings morph into a poisonous web that entangles those with no fallback. Nicholas Tucci and Larry Fessenden guard exits, while an event organizer pulls girls into a room one by one. Asensio first conveys panic in the situation, but perseverance honors those who have fought her struggle before.
Oppression pushes downward like a weight, forcing hot, young model-types to sell themselves for just a taste of a lifestyle pie we indulgently wolf down. Imagine pursuing the American dream only to find yourself laying in a glass coffin, naked, while onlookers place bets? Beautiful isn’t the word – but you couldn’t tell by Asensio’s disposition in the film’s final shot. Such a specific arc geared towards outsiders, fully understood by all demographics thanks to an expressive performance that smells distinctly of New York ambitions.
Behind the camera, Asensio transforms the opportunistic atmosphere of New York City into a two-headed beast. Brooklynites will recognize local cinema bar Videology, because Asensio’s down-and-dirty filmmaking is on the tightest of budgets. No re-designs. Just point-and-shoot, evoking cobbled character and distinct personalities. Extras sometimes rush through lines and project inexperience, but this is excusable because Most Beautiful Island always shines the spotlight on Luciana. Her character is both a chaotic whirlwind and a zen-like warrior, throughout this rough-around-the edges nightmare. Early follies as a nanny and overlong conversations with Olga (Natasha Romanova) give way to a tremendously affecting third act, always evolving until the final frame.
There’s something so unique about this living, breathing entity of cinema. Every step is a step forward. Scenes work to build towards dreadful tension, constricting tighter-and-tighter until a paralyzing climax sequence. Most Beautiful Island keeps pace with the absurdity of one woman’s deceptive night, tying our reactions to Ana Asensio’s on-screen disbelief. It’s less a film than it is a social experiment, but both aspects create one successful story about a creeping, crawling night you’ll never forget.
Most Beautiful Island summons viewers into its seductive web, lashing out with teeth-grinding tension when you least expect it.