erasing clouds

Maria Full of Grace

reviewed by dan heaton

In terms of lucrative criminal enterprises, swallowing some drug packets and hopping a flight to America initially seems to be a fairly easy task. However, this tactic is especially harrowing and offers the possibility of extreme complications. Clever dealers in Colombia lure young women into the business with the promise of easy money, but the experience could result in their death. If even one bag breaks inside of them, there is little chance for survival. Transporting a large quantity of surprisingly hefty packets, the girls struggle to fight their bodies and avoid detection from customs agents. Even if they succeed, the future promises additional trips that will only increase their chances of destruction.

Maria Full of Grace tackles this subject in realistic fashion and depicts the traumatic experiences of the "mules" transporting heroin to the United States. Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is only seventeen years old and has the social life of a typical teenager. She enjoys dancing and hanging with her friends and has an awkward relationship with a local boy. Her situation is not so rosy, however, as she must support the family entirely. Her older sister Juana (Virgina Ariza) cannot work due to her baby and exhibits little sympathy for Maria. They also live with their mother and grandmother within small quarters.

Maria's life changes drastically because of two major events - she quits her mundane factory job packing flowers and discovers that she's pregnant. Few options exist in the small Colombia town for Maria, and when a charming guy mentions the "mule" job, it appears to solve her urgent problems. She joins her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) and new acquaintance Lucy (Guilied Lopez) and transports the heroin to America, but the end result is much different than Maria's expectations. A disastrous event changes her perspective and leads to an unanticipated destination.

In his debut feature, American Writer/director Joshua Marston crafts a believable and touching picture that subtly attaches us to Maria's situation. This type of story could easily drift into obvious melodramatic territory, but Marston effectively keeps the film on a realistic level. The final half-hour takes Maria in a surprisingly different direction, which enhances our interest in each choice that she makes. The camera offers an intimate perspective of each moment without feeling intrusive or distracting. This talent is often missing from many of today's "indie" pictures, which consider shocks more essential than a human story.

Native Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno received a stunning Oscar nomination for her first acting role, and she deserves the high recognition. The story takes place entirely from her viewpoint, and its success relates directly to her realistic performance. Moreno never overplays a scene and makes the cringe-inducing moments even more difficult by keeping them genuine. Orlando Tobon also shines in the small role of Don Fernando, a Colombian man in New York who provides assistance. The other cast members also support the story and keep it at a competent level.

Maria Full of Grace tackles a divisive issue that could attract little sympathy from the audience for Maria's plight. Scanning some user reviews on film sites reveals a small (but very vocal) minority of viewers who believe that her act is criminal and unforgivable. I do not share this opinion and feel that this response places a political context to the film that is not present. Maria is smuggling illegal drugs into the country that will harm Americans, but her action is not a malicious one. Marston does indict the Colombian drug system and its treatment of the "mules," but he also sympathizes with their choices. The problem also resides in the limited opportunities for women like Maria that forces them into this difficult trade. Backed into a corner by her need to support her family and unwillingness to slave at the flower plant, she must choose a negative action. Marston does not support this activity but instead presents the reasons for this decision. The fair presentation generates a disturbing, yet hopeful story that sticks in your heart long after the film concludes. 2004. Written and Directed by Joshua Marston. Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Virgina Ariza, Johanna Andrea Mora, Wilson Guererro, John Alex Toro, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae, Orlando Tobon, and Fernando Velasquez.

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