Most Beautiful Island ★★★½

I had some concerns about Most Beautiful Island early on, as its Spanish heroine struggles to make ends meet in New York. She takes the subway out to a clinic where she tries to obtain some help from one of the doctors despite lacking the required insurance or money to qualify for assistance. While there's plenty of room for social commentary here and its immediately easy to relate to the protagonist, the doctor is THE worst actor I've seen in a long time and the whole situation comes across as clunky and artificial - not the best intro to a film that draws its horrors from otherwise very real situations.

It rallies quickly though, showing us the (fleeting) highs and (consistent, dangerous) lows of Luciana's troubled existence. She dresses as a chicken for work, her flat is full of notes asking for rent money, when she takes a bath, cockroaches flood out of a hole in the wall. All of this makes it easy to understand why she'd accept a somewhat questionable job offer from her Russian co-worker. Before long, she's stood in place in a stark basement with a group of identically dressed girls, waiting to be called through a mysterious door.

Most Beautiful Island feels a little stretched at feature length (it has that "expanded from a short film" vibe, although I don't think it actually was) and I have to admit, once the reality of what lurks behind that door is revealed, I did find it slightly laughable; however, it boasts such a compelling lead performance and (more than anything else I've seen this weekend, or recently) it is absolutely DRIPPING with tension - the kind of film where the credits roll to what feels like a room full of people slowly exhaling after holding their breath for much of the preceding 80 minutes. It's absolutely not perfect, but it's an extremely impressive debut from its Director-Writer-Actor that works wonders with a limited budget.

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