Director: Ana Asensio
Cast: Ana Asensio, Natasha Romanova, David Little, Nicholas Tucci, Larry Fessenden
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Writer-director-star Ana Asensio based this award-winning suspense thriller on her own immigrant experience, after her visa ran out and she was forced to take a particularly unsettling job in New York. She plays Luciana, an undocumented Spanish woman living in New York, who’s unable or unwilling to return to her native country because of an unspecified tragedy that involved her daughter.
To pay the rent on her roach-infested apartment, Luciana takes a series of demeaning day jobs, such as looking after a pair of bratty children or standing on street corners in a skimpy chicken costume, hawking “the best fried chicken in New York”. When her chicken costume colleague Olga (Natasha Romanova) asks her to fill in for her on a mysterious, but lucrative, assignment, Luciana is only too happy to accept.
Scamming herself a little black dress, Luciana duly reports to a scrawled address in Chinatown, where she’s handed a locked clutch purse and given another address. Olga had only said she was supposed to attend a party and stand around and look pretty, but when the party location turns out to be a shady-looking basement, Luciana finally begins to smell a rat. Only by then, it’s too late to back out.
Hailing from an established background in Spanish TV, Asensio is a striking presence and she delivers a compelling performance as Luciana, her physical vulnerability tempered by moments of surprising resilience and toughness, such as when she has to deal with a nightmarish roach invasion during bath-time. The supporting roles are equally strong, particularly Romanova, whose model-esque looks lend credence to her apparent knowledge of New York’s seedier opportunities, and Italian actress Caprice Benedetti as the de facto host of the “party” Luciana attends.
As a director, Asensio has a good feel for both the melting-pot New York neighbourhood (a small act of kindness from a Muslim shop-keeper speaks volumes) and its dark underbelly. She’s also adept at creating tension – the audience suspects the worst immediately, but it takes Luciana a lot longer to catch on, so the suspense levels are already high by the time she arrives.
To reveal the actual details of the party would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that Asensio ratchets up the tension still further through the use of sound, shadowy visuals and strange details (a scream, panicked looks from the other attendees, a visibly shaken woman emerging from the “game room”), although credulity is slightly stretched when it becomes apparent that some of the women have attended such a party before and could easily let the others know what’s going on.
With a running time of just 80 minutes, this is an extremely impressive feature debut that’s deliciously suspenseful and genuinely creepy, while taking a sharp dig at the way society treats immigrants. It marks out Ana Asensio as a triple-threat and a serious talent to watch.
Most Beautiful Island is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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