Sunday, November 10, 2013

Maria Full of Grace (2004)

Maria Full of GraceIn this week's "Entertainment Weekly" Stephen King picked "Maria Full of Grace" as his favorite film of 2004, which is certainly an interesting thing to know before watching this independent film from writer-director Joshua Marston. The picture on the DVD cover shows Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) posed as if she were about to receive Holy Communion. Only instead of receiving the host Maria is about to swallow a pellet containing heroin wrapped in the finger of a latex glove. That particular image is not present in the film with as much symbolism as it is on the cover, but it does represent the crucible of Maria's odyssey.

Maria is 17 and works in Colombia picking the thorns off of roses before they are shipped overseas. Although she is clearly a bright girl, Maria discovers that she is pregnant. To make things worse her boyfriend is a loser, her boss at work is a jerk, and her family needs her to provide money. So after Maria quits her job she is introduced to a man in Bogotá who will give her $5,000 for flying to New York City with 62 of those pellets in her stomach as a "mule" for a drug lord. For Maria that amount is a virtual fortune and seems worth the risk that one of those pellets could break in her stomach and kill her. So she practices swallow grapes so that she will be able to do what needs to be done to get her money.

There will be several mules on this particular flight, a practice known as "shotgunning" that Marston learned about and which inspired his original script. The idea is that if you put several mules on the same plane and plan on U.S. Customs catching one of them, which would make it easier for the rest of the drugs to get through. Also on the plane with Maria are her friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), who is jealous of the money her friend is going to make, a mule on her third run, Lucy (Giulied Lopez), who wants to visit her sister in New York City, and at least one more experience drug smuggler.

"Maria Full of Grace" sets the stage for the big trip by paying attention to the process by which Maria first practices, and then swallows all those pellets. This serves to underscore how dangerous this is going to be and you know that something is going to go horribly wrong. It is just a question of how many of these girls will be dead by the time it is all over and what exactly Maria will do to earn the sobriquet of the title. Marston does touch on all of the mules on the plane, but the focus of the story is on Moreno and her compelling performance. Clearly Marston is out to make a point, but because this is a low-budget independent film he is forced to tell it simply. Ironically, his leading actress is so good that we are concerned more with her survival than any stinging indictment of the use of mules by Colombian drug cartels.

Catalina Sandino Moreno won the best actress award a the 2004 Berlin Film Festival along with Charlize Theron in "Monster," which is interesting simply because the performances are pretty much at opposite ends of the acting spectrum. Since "Maria Full of Grace" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 18, 2004, where it won the Audience Award, Moreno's performance would be eligible for the next Academy Awards. Usually Oscar nominations focus on movies released in December and as a rule ignore anything released before the Summer blockbuster season, but what Moreno did in this film might be too impressive to forget (Addendum: For once I was right and Moreno is nominated for Best Actress).

Maria Full of Grace is a moving and powerful motion picture about a girl who goes in over her head when she longs for a better life. We follow Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) from her dead end job stripping roses in Colombia to a new opportunity--becoming a "mule," by ingesting drugs in large capsules and smuggling them to New Jersey. What follows is a gritty, fast-paced, and suspense-filled story

Remember the name Catalina Sandino Moreno. The heartfelt and harrowing performance she gives here has won her a heap of awards and I am sure there are many more to come. First-time director Joshua Marston, who also wrote the taut screenplay, shows Maria being taught how to swallow drugs wrapped in packets -she sips soup to make them go down without gagging. If the drugs in her belly should seep out during Maria's turbulent jet flight to New York, she could be poisoned or arrested or both. Marston builds incredible tension. But it's the human drama etched on Moreno's young, weary face that gives Maria its potent punch.

This Winner of the Audience Award at Sundance is a terrific film; shocking, engrossing, and entertaining. But what makes Maria Full of Grace an extraordinary experience is its ability to be ordinary. We see everyday life here, plausible motives, convincing decisions, and characters who live at ground level. The movie's suspense is heightened by being generated entirely at the speed of life, and showing us what probably would happen, and not some implausible fairy-tale.

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Painful and ugly, Maria Llena de Gracia is also a powerful experience of vicarious desperation and deprivation. The story of a village girl in Colombia whose family, novio, and job all fail her at the same moment. She rushes heedlessly into big trouble, which in Colombia can only mean the cocaine trade. Coke merchants and smugglers are not nice people; we know that, and to see this film as an indictment of their viciousness is only a fraction of the movie's content. It's also, and more importantly an indictment of the global economy, the Octopus of our era with far stronger tentacles than the railroad of the early 20th Century. The indictment is clear from the first scene of the movie, when ALL the young women of the community report for work through a high wire fence to the warehouse where roses are trimmed and wrapped for export to North America. There is no other work in the village, no subsistence, no options, no future. If it were in Mexico and there are exactly the same horrible sweat-shops in NAFTAfied Mexico one would have at least the option of illegal emigration to El Norte, but in Colombia, it's 'muling' drugs or maid service. Frankly, I doubt that many American viewers of this film really saw what it was about from the Colombian perspective. Stopping the drug traffic isn't just a matter of spraying lethal chemicals over the countryside or supplying arms and helicopters to the latifundistas who own the government, and it isn't just a matter of reducing demand from the two poles of American society the marginalized Black and the overprivileged White either. It's a matter of facilitating the recovery of a diverse local economy, in which most people can make a living and a few can even find opportunity without crime and violence.

The Spanish spoken in this film, by the way, is extremely hard to catch unless you've heard the rural dialects before. The "vos" forms are used throughout (vosotros in Spain, the second person plural) and slang is pervasive. Even my son, who went to public elementary school in Spain and who speaks like a native, had to have the English subtitles.

Read Best Reviews of Maria Full of Grace (2004) Here

Director Joshua Marston made MARIA FULL OF GRACE on a tight budget, but the result is a compelling closely-focused film which documents a segment of the drug trade while managing to avoid the obvious stereotypes. The story centers around the unhappy teenaged rose-worker Maria, played wonderfully by newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno, who agrees to swallow heroin for transport to New York in return for a big payoff.

The orchestration and consequences of a single drug run from Colombia to New York comprise the main dramatic content of this film. Throughout, Marston pointedly avoids the caricatures commonly found in the drug film genre. Maria, unhappy throughout, is nevertheless not on the edge of desperation when she makes her choice to become a drug mule. The Colombian drug lord is not the menacing figure one might expect, at least as he is portrayed interviewing Maria for the job and preparing her for her journey. Even the U.S. Customs agents in New York, conceivably an irresistible target for filmmakers with a "message," are portrayed as professional and sympathetic.

One is continuously struck by the detailed realism and honesty of the film; Marston insisted upon using only Colombian actors in the roles of Colombians (though he filmed largely in Ecuador), and the other small details of the movie are indicative of the extensive research that went into its making. That the movie made a profound impact in Colombia, where it premiered, testifies strongly to its authenticity. The story is powerful and horrible and realistic, but one can also perceive a hopeful optimism in it by the end.

MARIA FULL OF GRACE is not always an easy film to watch, and some of the more disturbing images are bound to linger on the mind longer than one might wish. Nevertheless, I could not give a stronger recommendation than the one I give for this movie. Every performance in this film is top rate.

The DVD release of MARIA FULL OF GRACE includes the original and international trailers of the film as well as a helpful and enlightening audio commentary from director Joshua Marston.

Jeremy W. Forstadt

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(2008 HOLIDAY TEAM)Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a seventeen year old living a poor farming life in Columbia with her mother, sister and her niece whose father has deserted them. After losing her only job in her community, Maria finds herself involved with smuggling heroin into the USA. This would give her enough money to start a new life in what is referred to as `the magical land' (El Norte). Desperate, she finds herself in a situation completely unlike she expected and meets tragedy and betrayals everywhere she goes. However, there are those kind enough to understand her and support her if she manages to live. Moreno was up for Best Actress for this role, which is uncommon for a non-UK or American actress.

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