Movie review by Greg Carlson
An assured first feature from writer-director Joshua Marston, “Maria Full of Grace” transports viewers into the tense, desperate world of illegal international drug smuggling. Unlike films that treat this subject with lurid action sequences fraught with phony car chases and salvos from automatic weapons, Marston’s movie focuses instead on the emotional plight of the title character, a 17-year-old Columbian who agrees to become a mule out of economic necessity. The director refuses to romanticize either Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) or her new vocation, and the result is a clear-eyed tale more interested in hope than in despair.
Stripping thorns from roses in a florist’s sweatshop in her dreary hometown, Maria bitterly turns over the majority of her meager paychecks to her mother and sister. Facing a grim, dead-end future, Maria impulsively quits her job, much to the surprise of her family and the consternation of her best friend, the naïve Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega). To make matters worse, Maria discovers she is pregnant, but realizes she has zero interest in marrying her dull boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero). With seemingly few opportunities in her immediate future, Maria finds herself hanging out with charismatic Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), who matter-of-factly suggests she make money by transporting latex-wrapped pellets of heroin in her stomach as a drug courier.
Moreno plays Maria with a rock-solid center of gravity, and her soulful eyes speak volumes when words are not offered. The audience responds to Maria’s predicament with no small amount of resignation and fear, and it is to Moreno’s credit that she can negotiate the uncertain terrain of her harrowing new experiences in such a way that allows the audience to see that she will not compromise her dream of a better life for the criminals who exploit her. The scenes in which Maria prepares for her flight to America are genuinely frightening, as she is made to ingest 62 sizeable rubber packets. If any of the balloons breaks while in her stomach, the overdose would certainly mean the end of her life.
Prior to departure, Maria meets Lucy (Guilied Lopez), another young drug mule who has already made the trip to New York and back at least once before. Lucy shares her pellet-swallowing technique with Maria, and offers what little advice and wisdom she can. Maria realizes that a total of four drug runners are on her flight, and she is dismayed when one of them turns out to be Blanca. The journey from Bogota is incredibly unnerving, and Marston unflinchingly depicts the discomfort and stress of the contraband-carrying women. Once the plane has touched down, the labyrinth of international customs provides another opportunity for the director to turn up the heat, and Maria’s experience continues to induce stomach-churning, white-knuckle anxiety in the viewer.
What follows is Marston’s greatest accomplishment, as the filmmaker eschews most of the predictable outcomes for one in which Maria begins to take some control over her destiny. The remainder of the film introduces several beguiling characters, including Lucy’s sister Carla (Patricia Rae) and the well-connected Don Fernando (Orlando Tobon), a neighborhood fixer at the heart of the tightly-knit Columbian immigrant community. The movie, however, ultimately belongs to Moreno, and the young performer succeeds in guiding the viewer to an understanding and explanation of Maria’s dangerous choices.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/13/04.