There’s little in the first half of Ana Asensio’s feature-length directorial debut that foreshadows its outrageous second half, except maybe the credit for indie-horror distributor Glass Eye Pix. At first, it seems odd that Larry Fessenden would have produced what seems like an archetypal Sundance selection about multicultural strivers in New York City: The story focuses on one, Luciana (Asensio), an immigrant from Spain, running away from her past, struggling—often along the F line, in Brooklyn—to survive and find odd jobs.
Most Beautiful Island follows Luciana during a not-atypical day: to a doctor she can’t afford, because she has no insurance; to her apartment, where most things in the fridge have “Not Yours” notes taped onto them by her roommate. We see her pick up insolent children from school and walk them home, and we see her dressed up in a provocative yet silly costume, handing out fliers. Then, a fellow immigrant and friend, Olga (Natasha Romanova), from the flyering job, asks Luciana to fill in for her at another gig, which sounds too good to be true: Get paid $2,000 to show up at a cocktail party and look pretty—no sex-stuff required, just a black dress and some high heels.
Up to this point, Most Beautiful Island feels like a meandering, ethnographic quasi-documentary, set all over New York City, on familiar streets but also in back rooms and back alleys many people don’t often see. It’s set in a milieu of hustling immigrant women, living within a culture of seemingly infinite economic possibilities that all seem somehow out of reach. Each has her own reasons for being in the city and her own ways of making money—through Craigslist, or networks of other women in similar circumstances. Luciana often relies on the kindnesses of other immigrants: the shopkeepers who say she can pay tomorrow, and give her an extra little treat, or the cabbies who shrug off her inability to pay. But others tell her that we make our own luck and get what we deserve, espousing a moralistic social Darwinism that’s brought to life in the film’s second half, in the form of a biting metaphor.
Olga’s job offer, which leads Luciana to a cinderblock-lined basement along the West Side Highway, is indeed too good to be true. Women stand in narrow circles, drawn and numbered in chalk, in which they’re ogled by ladies and gentlemen in evening dress holding champagne—and stern men in black prevent the women from leaving. We’re made to wait there with them, airs of tension, menace, and mystery getting denser as the women are led one by one into a “party room,” to which the well-dressed have retired. When Luciana is finally called in, the moment is nightmarish—a relatively simple yet quite unexpected scenario that’s stomach-twisting in its elemental horror but also in the fact that many of these women, abject in their desperation, have volunteered to participate, putting their lives at risk for sport and cash. The experience seems as dehumanizing as a sexual assault.
Many genre movies in which bad things happen to women end with them fighting back, but here, as people surely would in real life, they just take the money and run. There’s no grand climax, no wicked revenge or Grand Guignol comeuppance, just a shot of a stretch of New York City highway, a faded sign, painted on a brick wall, visible if you squint: BIG APPLE BIG DREAMS. Its irony turns grotesque if you remember the film’s opening text: “Inspired by true events.” This is how the other half really lives today.