DENVER AND NEW YORK VIA PHONE—There is a musical quality to Spanish actress and filmmaker Ana Asensio’s voice that is both transfixing in its soft and hypnotic tone yet also strong and direct. She is, in a word, charming yet her directorial debut “Most Beautiful Island” is a film that is far from that, a dark and mysterious take on immigration in the U.S. The compelling story is focused around Luciana (played by Ms. Asensio), a young undocumented immigrant from Spain with a hinted at, but never revealed, tragedy in her past, which likely drove her to leave Europe in search of a better life in New York. However, it’s obvious pretty quickly that while she’s made it to America it’s not exactly to a better life.
She struggles to make ends meet by working odd jobs, one of them having to wear a skimpy chicken suit. She’s behind on rent. She’s desperate when a friend, Olga, who is also an undocumented immigrant, tells her about a job that’s easy money. All Luciana must do is stand around and look pretty at a party. It sounds too good to be true, and it turns out that it is. Luciana is thrust into a terrifying ordeal that presents a shocking counter-narrative to the traditional American immigration story.
Although the film feels timely today, while immigration and women’s rights in the U.S. are hot topics, Ms. Asensio has been working on the film for years. “The story came to me at the end of 2010 so we’re talking about seven years ago,” Ms. Asensio said. “And I wrote the script in 2011.” The idea for the story came partially from her own experience as an immigrant. She was living in the U.S., waiting for her visa to work as a model, and interacting with other women in the same situation. When someone remarked that their situation couldn’t possibly be that tough, that became a catalyst for the idea to do this film with the realization that people don’t often consider what Ms. Asensio called “this type of girl.” “We didn’t have social security numbers, we couldn’t legally work, we had no family, most of us didn’t speak the language and we were in a very vulnerable situation,” said Ms. Asensio. “Women [immigrants] are more vulnerable than men.”
Noah Greenberg, the film’s director of photography and producer agreed that Ms. Asensio’s experience as an immigrant and a woman came into play when making the film. “Her background gives her a unique perspective and certainly gives the film a certain authority that it might otherwise lack,” he said. Mr. Greenberg was also quick to point out that although it was Ms. Asensio’s first time directing a film, it was not her first time directing. “Ana is a first-time film director,” he stated, “but she has directed quite a bit of theater, including award-winning one-woman plays.”
“Most Beautiful Island” feels like a psychological thriller but there is also a strong dramatic element to the film as well, the ambiguity being very purposeful. Ms. Asensio said it was important for the audience to develop empathy for Luciana since “a lot of the people watching the film could not relate to her current lifestyle or who she is and where she comes from.” To develop that empathy, Ms. Asensio wanted the audience to experience Luciana’s “journey and desperation and the mystery of what’s going to happen next” in real time. The film was shot on Super 18 and feels intimate because of it which furthers Ms. Asensio’s goal to develop empathy for Luciana. Between the storyline, Ms. Asensio’s acting and directing, and the intimacy of the Super 18, it’s hard not to feel empathetic toward Luciana and her plight.
Creating the final product had its challenges, though. The biggest one for Ms. Asensio and her crew was the fact that she was acting in almost every scene and directing. And there are several scenes in which Luciana is laid bare, physically and mentally. She said those scenes proved to be the most difficult for her as a director and actress. “This made reviewing and discussing takes, and adapting, a bit more complex,” Mr. Greenberg said. “But we found many creative solutions along the way to make that an efficient process.”
Asked why she wanted to do the film, Ms. Asensio said it came in part because she wasn’t getting the roles that she wanted to play, so she decided to write her own role. She has no plans to turn back. “Now that I’ve discovered the joys of writing and directing I really want to do that,” she said. “I can be proactive rather than waiting in my apartment for a phone call for an audition.”
In terms of acting, she joked that she would not turn down a role to be the first female James Bond. “Think of the fun things the character does,” she said, laughing. “I’d have Bond boys.” Taking a more serious tone, she added that a female lead in the role is a way to play with society and make the audience think in a different way. “I don’t think we’re ready for that, but it would be great–an older woman who is a badass acting with younger boys,” she said, contemplative. When asked what her one piece of advice would be to younger women interested in getting into the field of filmmaking, she said to be persistent and “don’t listen to anyone who wants to discourage you.”
Photos: Courtesy of Ms. Asensio’s UK PR firm Team PR.