Maria Full of Grace is a hyper-realistic, unsentimental, disturbingly honest exploration of one of the methods that drugs are smuggled into the United States. After writer-director Joshua Marston created the script for this, his debut film, he spent time in both Columbia and the Columbian neighborhoods of New York before filming.
The time spent there, combined with the documentary style of the film, infuses every frame with the heart and emotional honesty lacking in other “issue” themed films like Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film about drug trafficking, or Rendition, Gavin Hood’s 2007 film about the CIA’s use of extraordinary rendition.
Those films, as is the hip trend in Hollywood today, embrace a multi-vocal, multi-storyline approach. Marston smartly bucks this trend–he seems to understand and appreciate that focusing on one incredibly rich storyline, with a strong and unique character at its center, can produce film that truly affects us.
At the center of Marston’s film resides his title character: 17-year-old Maria Alvarez. Maria lives in a small Colombian village near Bogota, and works at a flower factory, stripping thorns from rose stems. It’s a thankless, monotonous job, but it’s only a part of Maria’s dead-end, caged existence–and we can see that she wants to, or maybe needs to, escape. She lives in a crowded house with her older, unmarried, single-mother sister, and not-so-bright boyfriend. Maria, as played by the luminous Catalina Sandina Moreno, is not only intelligent but also courageous and captivating.
Early in the film, when Maria and her boyfriend are out for some alone time, they stop by an abandoned building. In a moment that tells us much about who she is, Maria impulsively decides she wants a better view of her town, and climbs up the wall of the abandoned building to the roof. Her boyfriend is too afraid to follow.
Maria knows then that he’s not ready to father their unborn child.
Rebuffing his awkward and poorly delivered marriage proposal, Maria turns to how she’ll help to support her family, and, after it is born, her child. She has already quit her job at the flower factory when her boss refused to let her pee, and she and her family are in desperate need of money.
On her way to Bogota to look for work, she encounters a seductive young man who suggests that she become a drug mule, carrying heroin into the United States at $5,000 a trip. The movie then shifts to its darkest and most disturbing chapter–the chilling trip that Maria takes as a drug mule going into the United States. From here on, Moreno takes total control of this film, her first.
Watch her closely and be amazed. There is a scene in which Maria must swallow large, tampon-sized pellets of heroine wrapped in layers of latex–62 of them–that Moreno meets head on, brash and unflinching. Some may gag. Others may feel their hearts break.