Most Beautiful Island (2017)

Most Beautiful Island first published by Little White Lies

Most Beautiful Island opens with scenes of the morning pedestrian rush in New York. It is a series of crowd shots, each with a different woman at its centre. By the time the camera has settled on Luciana (the actress Ana Asensio, who is also debuting here as writer/director), we are not sure what connects her, beyond her sex, to these other women, although we are already getting the impression that hers is just one face in the crowd, with an experience shared by many and a story that could equally, mutatis mutandis, be someone else’s.

The film follows a day (and night) in the life of Luciana – a vulnerable yet resourceful illegal migrant haunted by the pain and guilt of her young daughter’s death back home. Luciana struggles to build a new life below the radar with hand-to-mouth jobs, and to get her nausea and nosebleeds treated without medical insurance – in the land where, as her new friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) puts it, “anything is possible.” Yet so great is Luciana’s grief, despair and lack of self-worth that when, while having a bath, she accidentally releases a nest of cockroaches into the room, she neither flinches nor flees.

“I am having nightmares again,” is Luciana’s first line in Most Beautiful Island, spoken into a phone (its credit ticking down) to her mother far away. The film’s ironised title is also a message scribbled by Luciana on an insistent rent demand that she has folded into a paper aeroplane and sent flying out her shared apartment’s window to the cityscape beyond. Her dreams too, very much of the American variety, are right there for her to see, yet always beyond her grasp – whether in the affluent privilege of the two demanding young children she babysits, or in the haute couture stores whose goods she cannot afford. 

Risk and opportunity come when Olga offers Luciana a highly paid and potentially regular gig to attend a party in a cocktail dress. “It is not what you are thinking,” Olga reassures her, and indeed, it will turn out to be something else, more akin to Luciana’s nightmares, as the social realism of the film’s first half gives way to an altogether more genre-bound affair in the basement of a New York building. There Luciana will not only join all the women glimpsed in the film’s opening sequence, but also find herself making unwelcome contact with another, rather different female group brought in illegally from abroad, and exploited at the whim of élite sado-spectators. In the skin-crawlingly tense scenes that ensue, the everyday danger and helplessness of being a paperless migrant is transformed into an ‘entertaining’ game of chance, reminiscent of the premise from Géla Babluani’s 13 Tzameti (2005). The film ends near where it begins – on a very early New York morning, under a poster that reads ‘Big Apple, Big Dreams’ – but by now Asensio’s grippingly double-edged tale has exposed that dream to be rotten to the core. 

Anticipation: Heard good things, and like islands.

Enjoyment: Long day’s journey into skin-crawlingly tense night.

In Retrospect: The plight of America’s dreaming paperless, in devastating diptych.

© Anton Bitel