Most Beautiful Island starts promising. About the experience of undocumented immigrants in New York Ciy, it’s a bunch of long lens shots of these women walking about. Picked out of the public, these shots hold for an uncomfortable time, only due to their lengths do you manage to discern the subject. There is this uncanny feeling of predation, the city about to swallow these people up. Or maybe, topically over the past year, the fear of those ICE squads that may come at you if you have a foreign sounding accent, the fear of being undocumented in Trump’s America.
Then after this provocative and engaging coda the film turns plain bad for the next half hour, forty minutes. Then it takes the wise decision to be trash for the last half hour and it’s great again. Like it’s the hardest dichotomy possible, largely because although she is a real promising director, with a good sense of mood and tension; Ana Asensio is not a good writer.
Like, the dialogue here is eugh, somehow over-explanatory yet somehow unilluminating. Many scenes which should just be shoe-leather have the characters ramble on and on while really giving us no sense of who they are or what they’re about. They talk about things, the fact that our hero, Luciana, is late on her rent and desperately needs money now is established on no less than three occasions. Somehow when she finds a note on the fridge saying it’s her last chance she endows that paper with two whole minutes of faff where she wonder’s through the apartment to find a pen, writes her response on the back, laboriously fold it into a paper aeroplane and throws it out the window.
There’s a segment detailing the two shitty jobs she works at, some promotional gig for a fried chicken place and childminding some local kids, and what could be detailed in a montage takes literally forever. There is nothing pressing or urgent about these scenes, the drama of her impending homelessness never seems to weigh on her character. I have no sense of what it must be like to wear a degrading outfit in the tourist district, of what the hands of these ungrateful kids feel like on hers. This fundamental error that elaboration must mean detail, it’s very elaborate, but the audience learns nothing.
At about the halfway point through the picture the plot finally starts Luciana is invited to spend an evening at a party for which she’ll earn a neat $2000. Following this is another protracted sequence of her making her way to the party, into a small Chinatown alley where she meets and unscrupulous man who hands her a locked purse and directs her to an industrial district she has barely enough time to make it to. It’s a pretty much wordless affair, the first time since the off that we’ve had some quiet and Asensio’s skills come right back to the fore.
The way she layers on the tension, the building of this intriguing mystery, and now the character has nobody to explain her problems to she gives the camera time to read her face. Eventually, she makes it to her destination and a cargo life takes her down into a dank basement. There she, and the other women we saw wondering the streets earlier are made to stand within small circles on the ground, not permitted to move unless instructed. They are appraised by a wealthy looking clientele and then, one by one are taken off into a small room.
It’s trash filmmaking of the highest calibre. We spend like half an hour with these women in this room, there’s minimal movement, there’s minimal dialogue, the audience and the characters are never totally filled in on what’s going on. Sometimes the women leave the room and are paid, sometimes there’s screaming and they don’t. It’s a minimalist tension play and with Noah Greenberg’s camera she makes it unbearable. This twenty minutes, say as a short, are fantastic. You don’t need to make a feature if you got a kernel that this fucking good.
I’m not sure why they decided to stretch it out, legitimacy maybe? Perhaps they though that adding the mumblecore scene setting would build character, or credentials, basically not make the rest feel like one-shot horror trash. But it is trash and it’s absolutely great trash and if you just lean into that hardcore there’s nothing to be ashamed of. This sequence is stunning.
Eventually they get into the room and the host of the evening explains that they’re gonna strip and lie in a glass coffin with poisonous spiders. It’s a bit of a let down and frankly the visuals here lean into something that feels a bit cribbed from half from a David Lynch flick and half from that scene in Under the Skin with the naked Scarlett Johannson and the ants.
The film wisely ends one minute after this whole affair finishes. It’s strange, the gold isn’t even buried here, it’s plain on the surface for all to see, confident, strong, bravura filmmaking. It’s just secreted behind forty minutes of uninteresting, unengaging character study of this uncompelling, underwritten woman.
I hope Asensio leans into her talent here, gets tapped to make some low budget thriller, maybe some exploitative Blumhouse project, something to let her thrill us all to the edge of our seats. I truly think she will make something great.
Most Beautiful Island is screening in UK cinemas this December.