Maria Full of Grace
directed by Joshua Marston
(Fine Line, 2004)

It seemed like the simplest of plans.

All Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) had to do was swallow a few pellets of "film," hop a flight from her native Colombia to the United States and turn over the film to its rightful owners. What could possibly go wrong? Besides everything, that is.

Maria Full of Grace is a simple tale, told simply: no flashbacks, no flash forwards, no hidden agendas, no parallel universes or digitally mastered creatures, just a bright, attractive, hopeful 17-year-old Colombian girl who suddenly finds herself in a family way.

She's lost the only job available to her in her small mountain village -- dethorning roses at a flower plantation -- and she's unwilling to turn to what little family she has, an unmarried sister (Johanna Andrea Mora) with an infant of her own and a mother who takes Maria's slim earnings to help pay for the baby's medical bills.

Her boyfriend (Wilson Guerrero) is willing to marry her, but not love her, and Maria is not the kind of person who settles for half measures. She sees enough of that in the lives of the people around her.

So when a biker boy she's befriended (John Alex Toro) suggests she might consider working as a "mule" for a local drug smuggler (Jaime Osorio Gomez), Maria spends very little time weighing her options. Besides, he tells her, "Those Gringos don't know a thing."

Maria Full of Grace is the kind of film that could quickly grow dull if it weren't for three things.

The first is the acting, which is top-notch from its opening sequence to its final airport departure. It's all low-key and all exceedingly convincing. Never for a second do you get the idea that any of these people are performing for an audience, an especially difficult task for Moreno, who's on-camera for nearly all of the film's 101 minutes.

Second, there's the cinematography, which captures both the broad landscapes of the two countries that share in this drug trade and the intimate details of Maria's life as a strong-willed child growing up in a limited community which, at its best, would have a hard time offering her what she wants out of life. Maria is an intensely personal film, and cinematographer Jim Denault captures it that way, sticking close to Maria regardless of what she's doing, and making her look, at times, like some living Mona Lisa -- wise beyond her years and possessing some sly inner knowledge she's simply not going to reveal.

Third, and most importantly, there's the microscopic examination of a process we've all heard about, but few have ever witnessed. The pellets Maria has to swallow are more like C-cell batteries than vitamin tabs, and "a few" means 60 to 70. And despite training from an experienced mule (Guilied Lopez) -- which we get to see in detail -- the pellets don't go down easy. Neither do they stay down easy, as we learn while watching Maria and three other mules, including her best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), sweat out their flight from Colombia to New York City.

That's where we learn that Javier was wrong about what Gringos don't know, and where Maria starts to feel more and more like the heart-thumping opening to Midnight Express. And if you think watching Maria ingest the pellets is harrowing, wait 'til you see her retrieve them.

Compared to films like Blow or Traffic, Maria is a rather tiny ripple in the drug-flick pond. But it's very smallness is its greatest strength. By showing us the drug trade through the eyes of one 17-year-old girl, writer-director Joshua Marston forces us to think about it in ways drug czars never do.

Maria might be a film about the international drug trade. But it's one you can take personally. Very personally.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 19 February 2005

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