MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND: A Provocative Take On The Immigrant Experience
Ana Asensio's directorial debut, Most Beautiful Island, is an intimate view of the immigrant experience not as social realist drama or romantic comedy, but as a horror story.
Warning: This review contains major plot spoilers.
There’s a scene early on in Ana Asensio’s film Most Beautiful Island that seems designed to provoke. Asensio – who writes, directs and stars here – is in the bath in her shabby New York apartment. She pulls away a couple of pieces of silver duct tape from the bathroom wall revealing a hole through which come spilling around a dozen fat cockroaches. Several of them tumble into the water with Luciana, Asensio’s undocumented migrant character, but she doesn’t flinch, let alone make any attempt to remove them, or even get out of the water. In fact, she barely seems to notice the creatures at all.
Historically, the cockroach has been utilised in political propaganda to demean and scapegoat minorities, or anyone considered “other”, most notably in pre-Nazi Germany and during the Rwandan Genocide. More recently, in 2015, those fleeing the civil war in Syria – some of whom drowned in the Mediterranean Sea – infamously suffered the same repugnant comparison from a right-wing British newspaper columnist, who wrote: “Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.”
As the cockroaches thrash about in the water, mere inches from her naked legs, Asensio’s intention as a filmmaker and storyteller becomes clear. Her impassivity mirrors that of a great many countries – including her native Spain – who failed to cover themselves in glory when the recent migrant surge (particularly from Syria and sub-Saharan Africa) was in full flow. They looked away, prevaricated, nit-picked over the numbers of refugees they could take, while people, including children, drowned in the Med. The symbolism here couldn’t be more potent.
Cold and hard
Suffice to say, Most Beautiful Island – based on Asensio’s own experiences as a penniless 23-year-old Spaniard living in New York – isn’t your typical film about the immigrant experience. You won’t find much in the way of hugs, learning, the kindness of strangers, or celebrations of cultural diversity here.
It’s more about struggle, danger, and humiliation, and is served with a huge slab of irony from the title onwards. Asensio’s film – which takes place over a single day – is about the expectations immigrants have of the lands to which they are travelling, and the stark reality they face once they get there. The jeopardy they put themselves in just to make a buck. It also deals with how these fraught experiences shape them as people. It shows us the immigrant experience not as social realist drama or romantic comedy, but as a horror story.
As well as Luciana, the film introduces us to her pal Olga (Natasha Romanova), a Russian model who’d travelled to the States with girlfriends she is no longer in touch with (“New York ate them,” she says mysteriously at one point). Olga has been made cold and hard by her experiences in the Big Apple. She lacks empathy and warmth, but still believes the American Dream is something she can attain (“We have so many options – here, anything is possible.”), despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Luciana is something of a contrast – gentler, kinder, a little naïve – and you wonder if her bad experiences will change her for the worse.
Dressed as chickens
Following a family tragedy, Luciana has fled to the States, where she can’t make rent or even raise enough cash to pay her mobile phone bill. Along with Olga, she hustles for any job going, no matter how demeaning. (In one of the film’s few humorous scenes, we see the two women, dressed as chickens, handing out flyers).
However, when Olga asks Luciana to take her place at a well-paid cocktail party job, matters take a surprisingly dark and twisted turn, a development which spins Most Beautiful Island off in a totally unexpected direction and takes up the entirety of the film’s second half.
Our protagonist is ushered into a brutalist building so bleak and foreboding you half-expect it to segue into a Saw sequel at any moment – and it sort of does. There she finds other women – including Olga, who has tricked her supposed friend into attending – and they all stand inside numbered chalk circles. A group, made up mostly of monied, leering white men, emerges from a side-room and inspects the women as if at a cattle market.
The anxious females are eventually taken into the room, mostly one-by-one, and bets are placed upon their ability to perform a certain task. Initially, we are not privy to what this task is – nothing good, obviously – and Asensio expertly keeps us on her hook while Luciana thinks of ways, all unsuccessful, to escape. She is told by the event’s host – the sleazy Vanessa (Caprice Benedetti) – “I don’t think we’ve had one of your kind before”, as if she were from Mars rather than the European mainland.
Bravery and humanity
Luciana is a fascinating creation. Unlike many on-screen immigrant characters, she isn’t fleeing persecution or war, but a family tragedy. It’s a misfortune we’re told little about, although, during a telephone conversation, we glean that her young daughter has passed away, the death ruled “accidental”. It becomes more intriguing later, when we see Luciana supposedly babysitting two unruly American children, who she is clearly incapable of looking after.
The badly-behaved young girl goes missing but, luckily, is found by a neighbour, who Luciana proceeds to dump both kids on. It makes you wonder whether she brought the same lack of judgement and care to looking after her own child. In a strange way, though, it also humanises her. Luciana isn’t a perfect person or clichéd immigrant full of innocent virtue and boundless decency; she’s messed up and, at times, hard to like.
Along with Olga, Luciana is eventually escorted into the room, where it turns out they must undergo a trial by spider. Each woman in turn strips and enters a transparent coffin where a highly-venomous arachnid is encouraged to skitter over their bodies for two minutes, the other on hand with a stick to coax the creature back on to bare flesh if it wanders off-piste. It’s a spot of gambling, mixed with a perverse sex-cum-power game, in which even the spiders are immigrants – one Chilean, the other Brazilian.
Luciana’s bravery and humanity gets her through the ordeal in a direct repudiation of Olga’s desire to look after No.1. But Asensio denies her – and us – an optimistic ending. Luciana escapes with her life and surely saves Olga’s, but she is then offered an opportunity which would take her to a very dark place indeed. She heads off into the night and we’re unclear which way Luciana will jump tomorrow, when the struggle to keep her head above water starts all over again. You worry for her and wonder how long it will be before New York eats her too.
In Conclusion: Most Beautiful Island
This is a sharp and, at only 80 minutes, tightly-made debut. The script is strong with some nice little hints and nods, so you can put the pieces of the wider story together. Asensio handles the seismic shift in tone halfway through confidently and I also liked the film’s opening where the director keeps us guessing as to which of several female characters – presumably migrants also – the film will focus on, before eventually settling on Luciana.
It’s shot vérité style on Super 16, which helps accentuate cinematographer Noah Greenberg’s eye for the ebb and flow, grit and grime of big city life. At times, you feel as if you’re right there on the pavement with Luciana, which gives Most Beautiful Island an intimate, perhaps even voyeuristic quality.
Most Beautiful Island is Ana Asensio’s first film as director. What was your favourite directorial debut from last year? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
Most Beautiful Island will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on February 5, and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video in the US. For all international release dates, see here here.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.