Most Beautiful Island (2017) ***

November 17th, 2017
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir. Ana Asensio | Spain/US. 2017 | 80′ | Thriller

Many aspects of this true life tale of an ‘illegal alien’ Spanish grifting to survive in New York could come across as a little far-fetched, but its creeping paranoia also perfectly captures the climate of our increasingly unpredictable modern world. Based on the experiences of the film’s writer, director and star, it went on to win the grand jury prize at 2017’s South by Southwest.

MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND is best described as an urban thriller. Asensio’s Luciana is a desperate young woman who finds herself inveigled into situations she might have questioned and not counternanced in her native country, which she has fled in tragic circumstances. The pared down approach of dialogue and aesthetic adds to the film’s menacing allure where a brooding tension builds slowly towards the stark finale. From the early scenes there is a palpable feeling of dread when a confused Luciana is confronted by a hostile doctor who she consults about her feelings of nausea. We all know about the draconian rules surrounded the provision of health care in the US and this only adds to the sense of alienation. Surviving through a series of menial jobs – dressed as a chicken to promote a restaurant, and as a nanny to spoilt brats – Luciana cannot even rely on her self-seeking colleague, Olga, support or sympathy. And when Olga comes up with an offer Luciana cannot refuse, this does not arouse her suspicions. It involves lucrative work at an evening venue. All shoe has to do is dress up. Alarm beels ring when it emerges that the work could be both dangerous and humiliating. Our fears are borne out as she descends into the basement of a dodgy Chinese restaurant. No bags or mobile telephones are allowed at the venue, where she is urged by a threatening female master of ceremonies to ‘look like she is at a party’, while Luciana joins a group of similarly black-dressed young women who are each given a number and told to join ‘the game’.

There are shades of Eyes Wide Shut and even Frankie & Lola to this unsettling thriller which often sacrifices substance for atmosphere, the final denouement falling short of our expectations. Asensio uses a Super 16 camera to shoot her film, eking out a meagre budget to great effect. Jeffrey Alan Jones’ score is as mean and as sinister as the storyline of a claustrophobic but effectively scary feature debut. MT


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