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D: Ana Asensio / 79m

Cast: Ana Asensio, Natasha Romanova, Caprice Benedetti, David Little, Nicholas Tucci, Larry Fessenden, Anna Myrha, Ami Sheth, Brian Kleinman

Luciana (Asensio) has come to New York following a personal tragedy that occurred in her home country of Spain. She’s an illegal immigrant, sharing an apartment she can’t afford because she can’t get a permanent job (she doesn’t have a social security number, or a work visa), and when she’s unwell, dependent on the ministrations of a doctor (Little) who’s willing to provide her with medicine. Luciana has a friend, Olga (Romanova), with whom she occasionally works on cash-in-hand jobs. When Olga tells her that there’s a party where the girls can earn a lot of money for one night’s work, and it’s not that kind of party, Luciana agrees to go in Olga’s place when she’s asked. At a Chinese restaurant she’s given a padlocked purse and told to go to another address. There she finds other women (like her they’re attired in high heels and little black dresses), and Olga. While she tries to discover just what kind of party she’s a part of, one by one the women are chosen and led into another room, a room that many of the other women are frightened of…

When writer/director/actress Ana Asensio moved to New York City in 2001, little did she realise that a party she would work at, one that was “dangerous and illegal”, would help form the basis of her debut feature, the taut, award-winning thriller Most Beautiful Island. It’s perhaps a good thing that she did attend that party, because out of it, Asensio has fashioned a compelling, darkly unsettling movie that begins somewhat predictably, with Luciana travelling to the offices of Dr Horowitz to cajole him into giving her the medicine she needs, and then to Luciana arriving home to find a final reminder about the rent she owes. So far, an unremarkable exploration of the likely experiences of an undocumented immigrant, and one that will have viewers most likely wondering what further obstacles she will have to overcome. But Asensio isn’t interested in pursuing this kind of immigrant story; we’ve seen these kinds of trials before, after all. Instead, she takes Luciana, and the viewer, on a different kind of journey, with a very different kind of trial at the end of it, one that is expertly constructed and which relies on very little exposition.

Asensio creates a heavy sense of increasing dread from the moment Luciana arrives at the Chinese restaurant and is told she can’t take her shoulder bag with her, one that contains her personal effects. The inference is clear: without it she becomes anonymous, and if anything were to happen to her, who would know? The padlocked purse provides a further sense of mystery (when the contents are finally revealed, the moment provides a frisson of sick surprise that’s hard to ignore), and the gradual revelation of the party’s raison d’être is paced with great skill by Asensio’s confidence behind the camera, and Carl Ambrose and Francisco Bello’s incisive editing skills. This is a movie that grows uneasier to watch as it goes on, and the use of Fessenden and Tucci as crypto-villains cleverly adds to the anxiety Asensio builds up, while Benedetti’s role as the party’s organiser – all surface glamour and reptilian emotions – is hard to tear yourself away from. Asensio herself is a winning presence, deftly portraying her character’s desperate need for money without resorting to melodrama or making Luciana’s predicament more than it is. She also makes a handful of telling comments about the plight of female illegal immigrants, but this is no feminist polemic. Instead it’s a quietly impressive thriller that lingers in the memory, and a remarkable debut from its creator.

Rating: 8/10 – with only a small handful of awkward moments that serve as a reminder that this is Asensio’s first feature, Most Beautiful Island is still an intense, powerful experience that makes the most of its low budget and constrained production values; Asensio is definitely a movie maker to watch out for, and on this evidence, her next feature can’t come soon enough.