Ana Asensio writes, directs, and stars in this formally astute exercise in anxiety and release. It settles on one woman's hustle, Luciana, from Spain, but acknowledges the plight of other NYC women who have migrated from their home countries for all their own reasons. Luciana, financially broke, and shattered by a past guilt that may have drawn her here, wanders Manhattan utterly vulnerable and desperate to make it.
The wrong kinds of people, or perhaps just equally desperate people, take notice and use her to their advantage. Ana draws much of Luciana's struggle in Most Beautiful Island (SXSW’17 Narrative Feature Competition Winner) from her own experience, which is at least identical emotionally.
And for a directorial debut, what a mastery of form. Every aesthetic decision has been premeditated, and every seemingly arbitrary action and pattern holds their own arc and emotional reflection.
In our discussion, I acknowledge some of these patterns. Ana elaborates.
Why was Super 16 the proper storytelling format for Most Beautiful Island?
Well, I always imagined the film with the visual look of these films from the 70’s that were shot on super 16mm, and that were grainy, and had vibrant colours. So I wanted to portray this particular New York City story very gritty and authentic. So it was a good format for this.
The film plays a lot with perspective. It’s voyeuristic up until, perhaps, she gets involved in the seedier parts of the film & then I think the film finally introduces some of Luciana’s point of view at this point. Why is it important that this is the first time we get her point of view?
So I wanted to make a distinction between the first half of the film and the second. In the first half of the film, we’re presenting her and her circumstances in the context of a big overwhelming city. So for most of the first half of the film, we have the camera observing her going from one place to the other. It definitely becomes at some points detached. There are two moments in which we actually get inside her brain. The first is the distortion moment of what she’s seeing while taking a bath. And this is really the only time we get that point of view from her mind; it’s less a thing that we objectively see through her eyes.
Then it’s not until later on in the film that we go back to seeing her point of view — once the film has already taken a different direction and sensibility. The camera actually takes a step closer in coverage with close-ups and points of view. It becomes a different dynamic between character and camera than what we see in the first part of the film.
There’s this pattern with the camera movement in which we follow Luciana until we don’t, and then she leaves us. This is true of the final shot too. Was this a conscientious pattern? And what’s it meant to tell us?
To me, and the whole way the story is presented with the camera — it’s letting us know that we’re seeing many different stories from different women that carry their own journey within them. But then finally we stop at one, and we stay with that woman and decide to follow her day today. The story opens with all of these different women on long lenses mixed amongst the big crowds of New York City. Therefore, it was very important to me that many of the shots stayed in place — then she walks far from the camera so that we can see how she disappears amongst the crowd and the city. So that was very consciously designed.
So as to say, this is not just Luciana’s story, but also representative of others?
Definitely, and for us to think that this is one of many. Kind of to say that all of these women who leave their countries and come to a new one have stories behind them, and reasons why they’re here and why they do what they do.
This theme with bubble gum & ice cream, as these sort of menial rewards of sweetness. What do these scenes mean for you? And for Luciana?
To me the relationship with all of these sugary candies, and these precarious situations she finds herself in — She doesn’t even stop for lunch on this day, she’s running from one place to the other. But she’s got this bubblegum in her pocket. Some sugar to keep her going. Something kind of functional, in a cheap way [laughs], to keep you going. But at the end the ice cream, outside of having that element of acquiring it from another immigrant who has a different kind of opportunities - she’s selling ice cream on the street right? That kind of short connection and quick exchange in her own language kind of brings her back home & to reality after what she just went through.
And the idea of just eating that ice cream you know… When you go through something that is physically and emotionally powerful you don’t feel your body anymore. By drinking water or taking something — you're materialising and coming back into your body. You’re bringing back awareness and you can say ‘this is my body, I’m here, I’m back’. So in eating that ice cream, she’s becoming aware of what she just went through and looking back and thinking of the other people who are still there.
In the end, I had the sense that Luciana might be tempted to return. I understand it’s open to interpretation, and you don’t have to answer if you don’t wish, but what’s your take on it?
I do have my personal answer, but I left it open on purpose for the audience to take whatever they want away from the ending. Hence the long contemplative shot of her walking away and disappearing into the city lights. I like film’s that have an open ending for the audience to take away what they think should be.
Was the game inspired by true stories or designed as a sort of strong visual way to bring together all the film’s ideas?
It was inspired by an event that happened to me personally. But the way that it’s been put into the film has been fictionalised. This is not exactly what happened to me, but it’s the core of the vulnerability, the fear, and the anxiety that was actually experienced by me. So that’s why I took that personal approach.
The cockroach scene is shocking in that Luciana is not shocked and doesn’t respond quite as expected. It’s also a bit of a primer for the final scene. What is this telling us about her self-image?
She feels very low as a human being, not so much because of the place she’s taken in society, but because of the tragedy that happened before she left her country and the reasons she left it. She’s in New York trying to overcome that guilt. So she doesn’t see a difference between herself trying to survive in the city, and these cockroaches doing the same as well. She doesn’t think she’s any better than them and is just observing what they do to survive.
What of the subtle recurring theme of faith, how do you see its arc throughout the film?
It’s interesting because you’re the first person to ask about that. So I appreciate that you fully noticed. It’s approached very subtly in the film because I didn’t want to make a heavy handed statement. Because I don’t think it would be empathetic with the audience. So it’s put there in a very subtle way. The idea behind it is that Luciana was raised into God’s faith. More than likely we believe she was raised Catholic as the majority of the population in Spain is raised Catholic. After the loss of her daughter in this tragic accident she loses her faith in God. So when all these characters are telling her to believe and trust in God, it’s hard for her to look up and say “Help me” because she already felt betrayed.
There’s a moment when Olga tells her that God is right here watching, so if you do something bad something bad will happen to you. So there’s this idea of heavy guilt. That you may make a mistake and expect something bad for it. It will haunt you.
It’s a huge theme for me in the film although I treat it as a light undertone. It’s there for whoever wants to or is perceptive to pick it up. But otherwise, it’s not too in your face.
What does the fantasy of the ‘Most Beautiful Island’ mean in the context of Luciana’s story?
The idea of the island being the place you escape to when your problems become too much… We don’t imagine something unreal, we imagine palm trees and an ocean. So kind of like the place you can evade to when your reality is too heavy… But it also refers to the island of Manhattan, this place of dreams that everybody comes to. And, ultimately, the third connotation is the island that we all are as human beings. We are born and die by ourselves no matter who you are with. So that island that we are as human beings.
Did you learn anything, in making the film, about yourself or your life experience that you otherwise might not have... Seperate from the actual experience?
Well, this was my first time directing a film. I never directed a short or anything. So my way of thinking when I came on this was ‘We can do it!’ There’s no reason we cannot do all of the things that I am proposing. But throughout the shooting and post-production, I realised that I went in with a lot of bravery, yes, but also a lot of naivete. I didn’t know the challenges I was going to face, and there were many throughout.
I realised I needed help from everyone to make this work. Coming from a background as an actor, where you’re by yourself and it’s all about you — As a filmmaker, you need every single person around you to contribute and help to push for that vision. Without the help of any of them, it just wouldn’t happen. So it’s just a collaborative process, and you need so many people.
So that was a big lesson for me, learning to work collectively towards the same vision.
It was a privilege and an inspiration to talk to Ana and to experience her film Most Beautiful Island. She had a message of sincere encouragement for me and to all fellow aspiring filmmakers. Just make things. It’s something you’ve probably heard before, but it’s the truth, and I’ve never heard it with this sincerity.
Keep an eye out for Most Beautiful Island, and anything Ana might work on next.