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SXSW 2017: Most Beautiful Island

“The possibilities are why we’re here.” 

Few cities have inspired more big-screen immigrant stories than New York. The booming green-card culture of The Big Apple has brought us everything from gangster epics to slice-of-life comedies to tender coming-of-age dramas over the years. It’s never brought us anything quite like Most Beautiful Island. Ana Asensio’s ‘inspired by true events’ thriller follows an undocumented woman as her American dream becomes a quasi-noir nightmare. One that will long haunt viewers’ waking lives.

Of course, Most Beautiful Island doesn’t start out that way. Most nightmares don’t start out scary. Rather, Asensio’s film opens quietly, her camera hovering over the bustling sidewalks and train stations of New York. Each location brings into focus the face of a different woman. They are all young. They are all beautiful. They are all immigrants. By the end of the film, they will all find themselves in the same precarious situation. In many ways, Most Beautiful Island is all of their stories. We follow only one of them.

Her name is Luciana (Asensio). She’s Spanish. She has no money. She’s on the verge of being evicted and some dire tragedy has led her to a fresh start in New York. That last fact never quite comes into focus. The only real clues we get to Luciana’s past comes via a deft bit of scripting from Asensio. There’s a brief phone call with her mother back home and a box of baby clothes in Ziploc bags under her bed. That’s all. It’s more than enough to become invested in the woman. More than enough to understand the penetrating sadness in her eyes. And more than enough to see that New York is sucking what’s left of her dry.

The daily grind of finding work without papers or social security number will do that to you. The only gigs Luciana can land are lousy Craigslist jobs. Sometimes that’s a nanny gig for spoiled brats. Other times you’re stuck wearing a sexy chicken outfit and passing out flyers for ‘the best chicken in The Big Apple.’ Asensio captures the hustle and bustle of Luciana’s daily struggles with guerilla-style naturalism. The director’s use of natural light and real world spaces blends with Super 16mm footage to  give the first half of the film a piercing sense of authenticity. In those opening moments, Most Beautiful Island carries the hyper-realistic immediacy of Ramin Bahrani’s early films (i.e. Man Push Cart & Chop Shop).

Asensio presents a slightly less humanistic view of the world. There’s a rumbling current of dread behind the film’s realism. New York – for all of its glories – can be a dangerous place to call home. Every decision you make in the city comes with a degree of risk. The city’s seedy underbelly is ever ready to snatch up the poor and the weak and the huddled masses that keep it running.

Desperation leads to risk. Risk leads to danger. And danger bleeds through the film’s narrative in disturbing ways. Asensio enhances the menace by doubling down on all that realism. The first hint of impending doom comes during a calming bath before work. As Luciana settles into the water, a scuttling sound becomes audible. She looks up at a patch of duct tape covering a hole in the wall. She can’t help but pull at it. The moment is deeply unnerving. But it’s not out of the realm of reality. In a dingy New York tenement, it seems all too possible. And Asensio doesn’t overplay it for shock value. The immediate aftermath of that moment becomes the ultimate expression of the immigrant struggle. A fact that Asensio hammers home to perfection with a series of grotesque extreme closeups (an approach she’ll use to even greater effect late in the film).

With that simple tug of tape Asensio leads her story into the realm of noirish surrealism. Needless to say, Luciana’s day only gets worse from there. Her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) dangles an easy pay day in front of her. The gig sounds too good to be true. It probably is. But it’s worth the risk. Luciana hustles herself a sexy black dress and starts her journey to Chinatown. Thus begins her downward spiral.

From that moment on, Asensio escalates the nightmare with increasing intensity. Again, she always seems to keep one foot in the chaotic reality of Luciana’s life. A pit stop to pick up the children she cares for part time takes a bone-chilling yet conceivable turn. Her trip to Chinatown yields her a little black purse and quick glimpse into the web of lies that is leading her toward an imperceptibly bizarre fate. The less I say about that the better. Just know that Luciana finds herself in an underground lair. The women barely glimpsed in the opening are all there. Olga’s there too … along with a very wealthy, very white clientele. Know that a game is afoot. Bets are being made. And the only way out is to play.

I will say that you’ll never guess where the film is going. The last 20 minutes of Most Beautiful Island unfurl with a breathless, sweaty-palmed tension. Squeamish sorts may not be able to sit through it … particularly if you have a phobia of creatures with more than four legs. It’s almost unbearable to sit through. You’ll want to look away. Try not to. The moment is beautifully executed. It earns every bit of the visceral response it’s going for and you will be rewarded for sticking with it.

My Beautiful Island is the first film Ana Asensio has ever directed – long form or short. It’s a staggering piece of work that’s both timely and deeply personal. You will not be able to shake it. Even after you pry your hands loose from your arm rests and leave the theater. As the credits roll, you’ll welcome Asensio as a bold new voice in the world of film.

9/10

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Patrick Phillips is a Staff Writer for CutPrintFilm and geekinsider.com. He spends his time drinking coffee, buying records, writing stories and wondering why he never started a band. Follow him on Twitter at Patrick Phillips @savagedetectiv

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