Depending on how much time you have, it’s not possible to cover every film at a film festival, which means that a potentially amazing film can sometimes sneak by you. Unless it is an upcoming major studio release, many of the films showing at a festival have just one publicity still and a brief logline to promote them. You are left to your own devices to decide which films you want to see. Ana Asensio’s wonderful film Most Beautiful Island, almost got past me. It was on my initial list of films to catch but was in the “if I don’t catch it I’ll survive” section. When it was announced that it won the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at the SXSW Conference and Festivals I quickly made it a point to see it. Most Beautiful Island turned out to be one of the best films to screen at the festival, and is a strong directorial debut for actress Ana Asensio.
Shot in Super 16mm, Most Beautiful Island chronicles one day in the life of Luciana (Ana Asensio), a young immigrant woman struggling to make ends meet in New York City while striving to escape her past. She makes money by taking undesirable jobs such as handing out flyers on the street for a chicken joint or babysitting spoiled rich children. Her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) sees her desperation and offers her a job opportunity that will earn her $4,000 in a night. What Olga doesn’t tell Luciana is what she will have to do to get that money. Luciana eventually finds herself a central participant in a cruel game in the seedy underbelly of the city.
To say anything more about the plot of Most Beautiful Island would be a disservice to the viewer. At a brief 80 minutes, the film is deliberately paced but never feels boring. This isn’t a film where a lot happens, as the film spends the majority of its runtime following Luciana around the city, observing her daily routine. Nor is it an outright horror film, but once Luciana enters the basement of a local Chinese restaurant, Most Beautiful Island dips its toes into the horror well. This should come as no surprise, considering genre veteran Larry Fessenden co-produced (and also has a small but key role in) the film. The film maintains a significant level of tension throughout the entire last 45 minutes or so, which is all the more impressive considering the entire second act is set in a waiting room. This leads to a climax that is as chilling as it is unpredictable. Asensio holds off on the big reveal until the mounting tension becomes almost unbearable, finally exploding in a moment of catharsis that rewards viewers for their patience.
Asensio, who wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film, makes for a compelling lead. Luciana is a complex character who is so jaded by her past (which is left ambiguous in the film) that she is unfazed by almost anything. There is a scene early on in which dozens of cockroaches pour out of a hole in the wall and into the bathtub with her. Rather than immediately jump out of the tub, she just stares at them as they attempt to swim. Luciana’s lack of reaction speaks volumes about the character and the subtle touches that Asensio integrates into her performance. The viewer is left to put most of the pieces together. It just so happens that many of those pieces are missing. That we get to know the character as well as we do with so little background information is a testament to Asensio’s performance and screenwriting skills.
Most Beautiful Island is a powerful debut for Asensio, who is able to accomplish so much with so little (the budget was apparently minuscule). With the current political climate, the film is more timely than ever. Asensio transports you into the streets of a distressed and grimy New York City before plunging you into its dark and unforgiving depths. What you see there may shock you, but it sure does make for some gripping filmmaking. I look forward to what Asensio has in store for us in the future.