By Jillian Harrington, Staff Writer
Leaving behind the home and life you’ve grown up in is daunting in its own right, but the film “Most Beautiful Island” takes it one step further. Director, writer and lead actress Ana Asensio takes psychological fatigue and spins it into gripping horror in this film.
The film depicts the life of undocumented immigrant Luciana, who, barely scraping by, eagerly accepts any paying job that might bring her closer to security in this new world. Luciana’s travels through Manhattan are followed from a babysitter’s nightmare to one odd job to the next. For much of the film, there is little dialogue, only the visual paired with an often noticeable absence of music. Every little sound Luciana encounters on the busy streets of New York City are heightened, which only serves to build tension as the plot ascends towards the climax.
In an early scene, a friend of Luciana’s, Olga, asks Luciana if she could fill in for her as a party girl. What that means, Luciana doesn’t know, but upon hearing of the $2000 payout, she could care less. She follows Olga’s instructions, wearing a black dress and heels, even as it takes her from a sub-cellar in Chinatown to a basement uptown. However, as she arrives to find the party is in a large, nearly empty warehouse-like space, Luciana grows fearful. The sense that something is wrong is further increased when she sees Olga there after all, standing in a semicircle of girls – all dressed in black, and each before a number on the floor with number 9 waiting for Luciana.
Luciana panics, but Olga doesn’t react. Party guests – seemingly affluent men, some with beautiful young women in dresses and holding glasses champagne – arrive and look at the girls with a detached kind of interest. The games, Luciana is told, have begun. One girl out of the nine is selected to go into a separate room first. Luciana’s frustrations fall in line with those of the audience, as we all anxiously try to figure out – and for a long time, to no avail – just what danger lies behind that door.
“Most Beautiful Island” is shot handheld on Super 16mm, providing a frantic, documentarian sort of energy. Shots seem to trail behind Luciana, continuously psyching out the audience who can never claim with any real certainty that Luciana is not being stalked by some as-of-yet unseen villain. It creates an immersive, anxious viewing experience as the audience’s fears and frustrations of the unknown intertwine.
“Most Beautiful Island” is compelling: a thriller arriving just in time for Halloween. But maybe, like Luciana may have been better off not knowing what lay behind that door, the audience is better off not knowing what happens next.
“Most Beautiful Island” opens in New York theaters on Friday, Nov. 3.