Film Review: Most Beautiful Island

Ana Asensio’s debut feature as writer-director is an intense, sometimes claustrophobic allegory about the physical and moral pitfalls of the immigrant experience.
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Particularly over the course of its deceptively mundane first half, Ana Asensio’s debut plays like a kissing cousin to Ben Barenholtz’s recent, similarly themed Alina. Both films take pains to point up America’s pernicious tradition of callously exploiting the labor (and often the very flesh) of fledgling immigrants to its shores. “America ated her up,” one of the characters in Most Beautiful Island says about her Russian traveling companion. Barenholtz adopts a loose-limbed, borderline-melodramatic approach to his material, whereas Asensio has crafted an intense and sometimes claustrophobic allegory about the pitfalls of the immigrant experience under the generic disguise of a psychological thriller.

The opening shot’s funhouse-mirror distortion of a shuffling crowd perfectly encapsulates a new arrival’s experience of physical and mental disorientation on the teeming streets of the Big Apple. Asensio follows this up with a protracted sequence that focuses (in increasingly voyeuristic fashion) on lone women caught amid floods of pedestrian traffic. First-time viewers are likely to misread the significance of these seemingly random shots, but these ladies will feature prominently in the second half of the film. The final shot of the sequence brings one of the women, Luciana (Asensio), into startling close-up.

Most Beautiful Islandnow seems to settle into a groove following Luciana through her daily routine, but practically from the get-go there are increasingly troublesome signs that something is amiss. When Luciana raids her roomie’s refrigerator, filled with foodstuffs clearly tagged “Not Yours” via numerous Post-Its, it might just register her chronic fiscal desperation. Licking the rim of the juice bottle before putting it back, on the other hand, betrays a puckish sense of spiteful humor. But hordes of roaches scurrying from a crack in the bathroom wall seem to be setting viewers up for a Repulsion-like storyline concerning Luciana, especially since we’re never entirely sure whether or not it’s a hallucination, until the film veers into left field for its second half.

A thread runs through the film betraying a deep-seated ambivalence toward children: As we soon learn, Luciana’s daughter has died under circumstances sufficiently questionable to encourage her to flee her native Spain for the U.S. Her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) displays a pronounced dislike for children when they meet for coffee. And, last but hardly least, the two children Luciana babysits on a regular basis are depicted as flagrantly bratty little monsters. Luciana herself seems to subsist almost entirely on lollipops and ice cream, much like a child, as though she has assimilated certain aspects of her dead daughter’s personality into her own.

Intensifying this aura of psychological malaise, events turn darker and more foreboding as Luciana gets ready for the “party” she believes will pay big money for her to attend as little more than window dressing. Provisions include a descent into the steaming bowels of a Chinese restaurant, where the aggressive attitudes of the owners only contribute to the mounting sense of danger. An analogous plunge in an industrial elevator to the party prepares us to anticipate a hellish fate for Luciana, but what Asensio has in mind for her character is far more disturbingly ambiguous.

DP Noah Greenberg’s image is framed at 1.66:1, the industry standard in Europe, and the film’s bravura central set-piece definitely conveys a decadent European sensibility, like one of those indolent swinger romps out of a Jess Franco De Sade adaptation. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that proceedings in the “game room” involve a particularly insidious form of wagering. The mood for these festivities is oddly reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut, minus the masks and Buddhist chants. The idea that the elite toy with the disenfranchised for their jaded amusement certainly parallels Kubrick’s film.

Jeffrey Alan Jones’ rumbling, resonant sound design for this sequence adds immeasurably to its impact, utilizing a discordant rattle that recalls a ball rattling around a metallic roulette wheel. It’s to Asensio’s credit that she relies almost entirely on the audiovisuals to convey the impact of the film’s finale. The ambiguous final shot leaves viewers to parse Luciana’s response to her ordeal for themselves, while a sign advertising Big Apple NYC Dreams ironically hangs in the distance.

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