“Are you ready to receive the gift of salvation?” a street preacher asks lead character Luciana as she walks past him. It’s a running theme through the first half of Most Beautiful Island as Luciana discusses redemption with her mother. She has left her home country following an accident involving her daughter Sofia (we don’t know the specifics but there’s a shoebox containing baby clothes, sealed in plastic bags to preserve the newborn smell). In the US she must find the belief to survive and the faith that things will, have to, improve.
The film opens with a camera sweeping crowded streets, randomly honing in on unidentified women and briefly following them before moving onto the next, until it eventually finds Luciana (writer-director Ana Asensio). She is trying to see a doctor for the nausea, nightmares and nose bleeds which are becoming more and more prevalent, however she, like many undocumented individuals, has no health insurance nor the $75 spare to pay for the appointment. Her day made worse as she returns home to passive-aggressive notes from her roommate demanding rent and the Post-Its tacked to food items in the fridge reminding her that they are “Not Yours”.
What follows is a relentless pelting of lack of privilege and hardship, tightly framed and often in close-up to give a real sense of discomfort and entrapment as each situation becomes increasingly worse; living hand to mouth, the crappy jobs which include babysitting bratty children or dressing like a sexy chicken to advertise fast food (the latter something immigrant men are spared, presumably). While discussing the dismal prospects with friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) – another woman finding her way in the world – Luciana considers donating her eggs for the $8000 offered in a magazine ad, it’s either that or fully embrace the defeat she has been feeling. However, things look promising when Olga offers Luciana the opportunity to cover for her at a party, all she needs is a LBD and heels and in return she will earn $2000.
At some point, alarm bells must start ringing as Luciana is led to the bowels of a Chinese restaurant to pick up a handbag, a designer knock-off complete with a padlock and then onto the hastily scribbled address she carries on a scrap of paper. As a viewer, you’re internally screaming for her to turn back as her evening becomes more bizarre, she finds herself in a web of weirdness, and the significance of those women seen in the opening moments is made apparent. To say any more would be to spoil but suffice to say Jeffrey Alan Jones’ music comes into its own here, the jarring sounds adding to the tension as the voyeuristic handheld super 16mm camera bounces between close-ups and wide shots, most of the action taking place behind a closed door – we’re as much in the dark as Luciana.
Most Beautiful Island depicts the day and night, light and dark aspect of the American Dream, and the form the film takes is very much split in two as the day brings opportunity and the night brings the dastardly (and genre-favourite and the film’s producer Larry Fessenden in a very small role). Asensio’s deployment of those genre elements in the second half exaggerates an already increasingly hopeless situation and is particularly effective. The first-time director manages to communicate a great deal, harrowingly, in a taut 80 minutes and refreshingly doesn’t sugar-coat the human plight at the centre of her narrative.