The New York immigrant experience gets a fresh spin in Most Beautiful Island, the new low budget, Super-16 film from writer, director and star Ana Asensio. The film opens with the camera voyeuristically tracking a series of women through the city before settling on Asensio’s character. We come to find out that her name is Luciana, but the implication is clear: hers is just one face and one story in a city that’s full of both. Nevertheless, for the next eighty minutes, we’re going to follow her.
We learn that Luciana is an illegal immigrant, struggling for money, struggling to access healthcare and struggling to just get by. At one point, she sits in her bathtub and peels a piece of duct tape from the wall only for a stream of cockroaches to tumble out into the water. What’s worse is she can’t even afford the rent on the apartment and her roommate is clamouring for the cash.
Most Beautiful Island is particularly adept in displaying the mechanics of living with no money – and with no money in a place where you can’t officially work. We watch as Luciana juggles jobs, babysits nightmarish rich-kids and cons her way into assembling a formal outfit in a matter of hours and the film leaves us with a grim admiration for her ingenious – yet utterly exhausting – hustle. But this constant hustle leaves her open to exploitation and she runs into trouble when her friend offers her a mysterious job.
To expand too much upon what that trouble is would be to rob the film of much of its power. Suffice to say that Most Beautiful Island enters territory that lies somewhere between Eyes Wide Shut and Saw as the tone shifts from naturalistic social realism to a grim, politically charged genre in its back half. Asensio displays an aptitude for suspense that’ll have audiences squirming as she ratchets up the tension for what is an assured and pointed directorial debut from a talented performer.