Ana Asensio’s directorial debut Most Beautiful Island is a fascinating look at a day in the life of an immigrant living in New York City. Luciana (Ana Asensio) works multiple dead-end jobs but still can’t seem to make ends meet. One day after finishing a shift working as mascots and handing out fliers for a restaurant, Luciana and her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) are discussing their various jobs when Olga gets a phone call. She tells Luciana that she was just asked to work a party but is unable to do so, offering Luciana the chance to go in her place. Desperate for money, she agrees to work the party, despite not knowing anything about it besides the fact that she will receive $2000 when she’s done. Unbeknownst to Luciana, she has just agreed to work a top-secret event for a group of wealthy New Yorkers with mysterious intentions.
There is a lot to love about this film, not the least of which is the wonderful direction by Asensio. Her choice to place the camera just over Luciana’s shoulder for much of the film gives a voyeuristic feel and a sense of disorientation as the audience follows her through the bustling city. This camera placement also lends itself to a feeling of isolation because we only really ever get to know Luciana, despite the numerous people around her at any given time. This isolation is key to creating terror and anxiety in the audience later on, when Luciana- the only character we have to hang our hats on- is in a potentially dangerous situation.
In addition to the direction, Asensio is responsible for the writing and acting, both of which are fantastic. The film features Larry Fessenden and Nicholas Tucci in small roles, but it is Asensio herself who steals the show. Although there is not much dialogue, Asensio’s story is compelling and is told in clever ways. We come to know all we really need to about Luciana through seemingly trivial interactions and throw-away lines.
One example of this is when Luciana arrives late to a martial arts class to pick up two children she nannies. The young children begin to act out, saying their mother will fire Luciana when she finds out their nanny was late again. She all but drags the children down the street and attempts to bribe them not to rat her out with ice cream. At the corner store, the children continue to misbehave even as they pick out ice cream (after complaining that it isn’t the kind they want). As they whine and pull at her, Luciana asks the clerk if she can pay him tomorrow because she has no money, to which he replies yes. Recognizing that she’s very stressed while wrangling the rowdy children, the clerk calls Luciana back to the counter and gives her a piece of gum for free, which she accepts with sincere appreciation. Through this simple interaction, we come to know a lot about our main character. In this moment, we understand the gravity of Luciana’s day-to-day struggle- dealing with bratty, thankless children of someone who could afford to compensate her well but doesn’t. Because this is her second job of three that day, it’s easy to see why she would jump at a chance for easy money. It’s also clear that Luciana often relies on the kindness of others to get by- naivety which later proves to be a mistake.
What is most remarkable about Most Beautiful Island is how it creates terror within just a few short scenes. When earlier Luciana seemed so sure that she wanted to work this event in Olga’s place, she begins to second guess her choice when she is pushed into a dark room to wait amongst other nervous women there for the same mysterious job. As Luciana begins to freak out, we begin to do the same. Throughout the course of the film, it’s clear the story is building to something, but when it comes time to find out to what, we want nothing more than for our lead to forgetting the money and bail.
What happens at the party needs to be seen and experienced, so the events will not be revealed here. The climax is as quiet as the rest of the film, but there is a palpable tension in the air- both on screen and off- as we find out just exactly what it is Luciana is doing at this affair. Asensio achieves feelings of genuine fear and unease with the scenes that unfold. There has not been a film like Most Beautiful Island in recent memory, and it really should be seen by anyone who thinks horror films have nothing unique left to offer anymore- especially in terms of scares.
This film will surely be divisive, as many artistic genre films are of late (see The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, etc). Most Beautiful Island not only tests the idea of a traditional horror film, but it exceeds the confines of that definition. It at once returns to basics by relying on dread to move viewers while also offering a fresh story from a new perspective and new voice. For those who have doubted that horror films can be artful or express important messages, Most Beautiful Island is a must-see. For those of us who have stood by the horror genre and are excited to see how it will further evolve, we need to be supporting films like Most Beautiful Island.
Most Beautiful Island won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize this past March.