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Most Beautiful Island
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by Jay Seaver

"Even finds the beauty in the parts that are scary."
5 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 19: We are fortunate to have multiple great film festivals in the Boston area - in fact, this very review is part of a (failed) frantic attempt to talk up all the movies from the Underground before the Independent starts. With so many, and films generally making only one festival stop per city, where a given film ends up can sometimes be surprising. That is the case with "Most Beautiful Island", which initially seems more art-house than midnight-movie, but that it navigates between those two very different styles is what makes it kind of brilliant.

It’s a day in the life of Luciana (Ana Asensio), who has made her way to New York from Spain after a tragedy that has made staying where she was too painful, but she’s starting to bottom out there: Well behind in rent on the dingy apartment she shares with a roommate who has taken to labeling everything in the refrigerator “not yours”, having to beg for a doctor to see her off the books, and taking odd jobs like handing out flyers in Times Square to even afford that much. After a morning of that, she and her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) are relaxing when Olga gets a call and asks if Luciana can cover another job she has that night - $2,000 to help pretty up a cocktail party. Sure, it will be a tight squeeze getting the black dress and heels needed around her afternoon job as a babysitter, but that’s good money for a night’s work, even if it probably does involve a little more than what Olga is selling it as being.

It will eventually require a lot more, but before it gets there, writer/director/star Ana Asensio essays an illuminating narrative about being a (likely undocumented) immigrant in New York - the scraping, the conning, the casual and constant disrespect. There are three or four scenarios strung together that could each work as the basis of an individual short or even feature if Asensio stretched them out a little more or fleshed out the other people moving through Luciana’s day a little more, but there’s an interesting flow to the way she sets it up: Though there is a point or two when it seems like a certain amount of trouble could be avoided if Luciana just popped back into her apartment for a moment, Asensio instead silently emphasizes that there’s an unsteadiness to Luciana’s life, that she’s got to keep moving forward or be ready to survive with just what she has with her. It’s not constant immediate danger, but it’s not stability, either.

As the main creative force behind the movie, Asensio could have given herself a showy role, or one which is unambiguously heroic, but instead she makes Luciana generally sympathetic but also far from saintly, with quick moments of peevishness or a practiced ease at ripping people off in small ways. Asensio spends most of the film showing how a persistent nervousness and a driving confidence to get through the next day play off each other, shifting into higher gears when danger gets closer, whether it’s the clear but illusory fears of a dream of the uncertainty of whatever may be behind the next corner.

When that sort of thing threatens to become concrete, there’s a bit of a stretch where it seems like Asensio is losing her grasp on just why the film has been working so well. The back end of the movie sees Luciana move from situations that many in the audience may have tangentially encountered, even if they haven’t experienced them personally, to something hidden and kind of lurid, the sort of thing that might be a background element in a James Bond novel to show just how depraved the villain can be, and it’s not just jarring, but for something trying to build tension, it gets kind of slow and stuck in a rut for a while, although its unreality never truly undermines what has come before. Eventually, though, this demonstrates what a delicate medium filmmaking can be, because when these scenes do eventually reach their denouement, the result is not just relief, but an almost astonishing sense of grace.

That is two shifts that, in other movies, could cause the thing to come crashing down, or invalidate what had come before. That’s not what happens in Ana Asensio’s film, thankfully, and that it turns out that way - something that fits well at both types of festivals, is a minor, delightful miracle.

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originally posted: 04/28/17 23:40:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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