SXSW Film Review – Most Beautiful Island
Most Beautiful Island
With all the talk about illegal immigration and homeland security these days, it’s hard to remember that many undocumented travelers come to the United States with pure intentions. This has always been a country of promise, where people from all over the world can escape their hardships with the hope of a better life here. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. As it says on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
That sentiment is captured in the first half of Ana Asensio’s film, Most Beautiful Island (2017). Written, directed, and starring Asensio, she tells the story of a Spanish woman trying to get by in the hustle and bustle of New York City. Using real locations and shot on Super 16, Asensio captures the excitement and strangeness that is living in New York. For a place that is a melting pot of different cultures, the city can swallow you up if you’re not strong enough. I remember traveling there to visit family a few years ago, and the city does a good job of making you feel pretty insignificant. Throughout much of the runtime, we watch as the main character walks through streets and buildings jam packed with people. It’s odd how a city that has such a high population can make one feel so isolated.
But this is the place that Luciana (Asensio) has decided to come to escape her past. We get glimpses and clues that something bad happened back in Spain, as Luciana suffers from headaches and insomnia. She works part time as a babysitter to kids she hates, and she has to constantly remind herself to conserve whatever money and food she has. Her fridge has post it notes everywhere telling her when her rent is due and what food she can or cannot eat. She takes a taxi even though she doesn’t have the funds to pay for a ride, and deliberately ruins clothes at a department store in an effort to finagle a lower price.
Despite the tough living conditions, Asensio plays Luciana as a survivalist. She’s a fighter – a trait that lands her in a sticky situation when things start to get desperate. With no money and bills starting to stack up, Luciana turns to her Russian friend, Olga (Natasha Romanova) for help. Olga gives her an opportunity: all Luciana needs to do is to put on a black cocktail dress, high heels, and participate in a party happening that very night. When the party is over, Luciana will be paid a cool two grand. Perhaps against her better instincts, Luciana decides to accept the offer and go to the party.
There are two distinct parts in Asensio’s film. The first deals with Luciana’s everyday struggle to keep herself afloat. This is arguably the strongest section. The realistic, documentary style filming captures the essence of New York from a ground level. Noah Greenberg’s cinematography makes note of the different people and places that make up the city. It reminded me a lot of Italian Neo-Realism. Even when Asensio veers toward more surreal sequences (such as when a gang of cockroaches invades Luciana’s bathroom) everything has a grit and immediacy that feels tangible. Luciana’s story throughout the first half can be relatable to just about any immigrant’s story.
The narrative starts to trip as it shifts into the second half. As day turns to night and certain questions start to go unanswered, Luciana starts to second-guess this “party” and what her role in it is. But her need for fast cash (and maybe a morbid curiosity) pushes her forward. The party becomes the sole mystery of the back half, and the closer Luciana gets to it, the more we start to fear for her safety. Asensio builds up to this reveal very well, holding us back from the truth just a tad bit longer just to amp up the tension.
When the truth is uncovered, what we get is…well…disappointing. It’s a weird reaction to have, to be honest. We spend a significant amount of time building up to this moment, and then when it finally arrives, while still disturbing on many levels, it never lives up to what we were imagining. Perhaps it would have been better if Asensio never showed us what the party was at all. The second half doesn’t have the same kind of reality that the first did, and the central mystery comes off as something of a dud. I understand the motivation behind Luciana’s decisions, and why she would put herself in this position, but the whole thing never pays off with the type of hard hitting catharsis I believe Asensio was striving for.
There’s a key shot where the camera focuses on a billboard that reads “Big Apple, Big Dreams.” It’s those little nuances that drew me into Most Beautiful Island. When Asensio tries to go for the bigger, more dramatic moments, I became less engaged. This is one of those instances where knowing less had a far bigger impact than knowing more.