Maria Full of Grace
Director : Joshua Marston
Screenplay : Joshua Marston
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria), Guilied Lopez (Lucy), Osvaldo Plasencia (Enrique), Patricia Rae (Carla), Orlando Tobon (Don Fernando), John Álex Toro (Franklin), Yenny Paola Vega (Blanca)
Maria is 17 years old and has recently discovered that she’s two months pregnant by a boy she doesn’t love and who doesn’t love her. She lives in a small town in Colombia on the outskirts of Bogotá, and the only place to work is a flower plantation, where she strips roses of their leaves and thorns while being observed by a casually cruel manager who balks at letting her go to the bathroom. She has to share a tiny bedroom with her slightly older sister who has a baby who’s always sick.
Thus, when Maria agrees to be a “mule” for a local drug runner, which involves her swallowing 62 pellets of heroin and then flying to New York, it’s hard to blame her, especially since it will pay her thousands of dollars for a few days’ work, literally enough to buy a house.
In Maria Full of Grace, writer/director Joshua Marston crafts a stomach-churning portrait of youth in the throes of desperation and the lengths to which one girl will go to escape the situation in which she’s trapped. Maria, as played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, is just fiery and independent enough to realize that she doesn’t want to end up like her sister—and like her mother before that, and her grandmother before that, all of whom also live under the same roof. She’s stubborn, but she’s smart, and that potent combination guarantees that she will never be satisfied with her current menial existence.
Marston builds the film slowly, using the first third of the story to detail Maria’s day-to-day lived existence in Colombia. He excels at depicting life as it is, detailing the realities of poverty without sinking into sentimental clichés or beating us over the head with it. The location work in South America and later in New York conveys a genuine sense of being there, as do the actors, many of whom Marston cast in neorealist fashion to play people much like themselves.
The decision to be a mule at first doesn’t seem like such a bad deal. The worst thing that could happen is getting caught, and the dealer is quite convincing when he tells her that, as long as she doesn’t step off the plane shaking like a leaf, there’s no chance of that. A slightly older woman named Lucy (Guilied Lopez), who has done it twice before, describes it as not hard, but not easy either. Maria soon learns, though, that there are many small prices to be paid: the extreme difficulty of swallowing more than 60 objects the size of a man’s thumb, the discomfort of sitting on a plane for hours with your stomach packed with heroin pellets, the humiliation of spending two days in a seedy hotel room with a couple of low-level gangsters while it all comes out the other end, not to mention the risk of the ultimate price, because if one those pellets breaks inside her, she’s as good as dead.
Once Maria decides to work as a mule, the film takes on a suspenseful urgency that transcends typical movie-thriller scenarios. There is a gutsy sense of realism here that makes a simple shot of Maria sitting on the airplane crackle with tension. And, once she is onto American soil, her journey becomes much more dangerous. Things start going wrong, and soon she and her tag-along friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), also a mule, find themselves cut loose in the middle of a strange country. Finally free of the shackles of her life in Colombia, Maria must still dig herself out of an increasingly desperate situation before she has any hope of making a life for herself.
Maria Full of Grace works beautifully as a compelling story, particularly because Catalina Sandino Moreno, a beautiful and talented first-time actress who auditioned for the film on a lark, makes Maria into a character with whom we sympathize not because we feel sorry for her (that would just make her a sap), but because we’re charged by her steely determination, even when she’s not sure if she’s doing the right thing. The film’s irony is that her ticket to potential freedom is paid for by exploiting her body—acting as a mule is the ultimate reduction of the human body to a commodity, a storage unit for transportation. The blithe manner in which the women are treated (there are four who make the trip) underscores how the all-male drugs runners think of them as nothing more than objects. At one point, a woman is sliced open (we don’t know if she was already dead or not at the time) because the plastic-wrapped contents inside her stomach are viewed as infinitely more valuable than she is. Maria, like all the other women who work as mules, are purely expendable—one might even say, disposable.
Marston evokes this sad theme with great power and urgency, thus transcending Maria’s individual story and making the film a elegy to all the desperate souls who have had to trade their humanity for survival. Though she comes close, Maria never loses hers, and Marston never loses sight of what a marvelous character she is. We suffer with her, worry with her, and find in even her smallest victories a sense of large-scale triumph. So much of the film takes place in small corners of the world, which reminds us that most of life’s sorrows and joys are small in scope, though deep in emotion.
The film’s most beautiful and heartfelt scene, not ironically, is the one in which Maria goes to a women’s clinic in Queens and has a sonogram. As she sees her baby on the computer monitor, she smiles—openly—for the first and only time in the film. In this moment, in this one smile, we get for the first time the sense that Maria will overcome the barriers imposed on her; she might even do more than just survive. Even though Maria Full of Grace ends on what might be called an ambiguous note, I like to think of it as the best kind of happy ending—one that doesn’t tell you exactly what will happen, but rather pulses with all the potential in the world.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Fine Line Features