"Maria Full of Grace": A Magnificently Low-Key Look at the Dramatic World of Drug Smuggling
by Peter Brunette
At the center of Joshua Marston's involving, multi-layered new indie feature, "Maria Full of Grace" (opening Friday), stands the radiant iconic figure of Maria Alvarez, played by Colombian newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno. A quietly beautiful 17-year-old living in a small town outside Bogotà, Maria resembles nothing so much as a Raphael Madonna, a conscious resonance clearly signaled in the film's title. As such, she also embodies both the innocent otherworldliness and the frank sensuality the Renaissance master sought to convey in his female figures.
Though mired in poverty, Maria has an independent spirit that won't be broken by either the unfeeling boss at her low-wage job (pulling thorns off roses destined for export, an occupation fraught with symbolic meaning), or by the dysfunctional family that depends on her financially. In a moment of well-earned pique, Maria leaves the flower factory, throwing the family's fragile economic situation into a tailspin. Eager to reconcile the conflicting forces that are driving her to despair, she agrees to become a "mule," one of those human beasts of burden who, in search of instant riches and the promise of a better life, consent to transporting illegal drugs to America inside their bodies, in the form of Vienna sausage-size latex pellets full of heroin.
Everything was ripe for failure on this film project -- especially the nervy idea of a neophyte American director working with non-professional actors shooting on location in Spanish -- but Marston pulls it off magnificently. What is perhaps most interesting is that "Maria Full of Grace" succeeds on so many different levels at once. Just as one character or plot trajectory is losing steam, another one quickly and convincingly takes its place. Thus, the film begins as a Ken Loach-style plaint against poverty and exploitation before it mutates into a more conventional (but successful) exploration of a rebellious teenage girl trying to assert her independence in a patriarchal world.
Then, the film becomes a riveting near-documentary on the life of the drug smuggler, carefully delineating the precise method used to create the horrible stuff that must be swallowed (up to a hundred capsules per trip) and the ghastly training Maria undergoes (practicing first on extra-large grapes, then graduating to the rubber sausages, dipped in olive oil). The gangster who conducts Maria's "job interview" bears little resemblance to familiar Hollywood archetypes, and his apparent gentleness makes him, consequently, all the more threatening. The specific form of the pressure that her family puts on her is also refreshingly different (and obviously more carefully researched) than that seen in most lazy mainstream films. The film's documentary power is further enhanced by the various slices of life (dances, courtship rituals) that we are treated to, and by Marston's use of the real-life New Jersey-based Colombian "fixer" of immigrant problems (Orlando Tobon, who also served as one of the film's producers) upon whom the director based this crucial character. Along the way, we begin to get an inkling of the enormous complexity of Hispanic life in America, especially of the illegal variety. What also helps here is the director's reticent use of the hand-held camera at crucial moments; it imparts a convincing veracity while never becoming fetishistic.
"Maria Full of Grace" shifts gears once again to provide a healthy charge of suspense as we wonder whether Maria and her fellow mules will survive the flight, the passage through customs in New York, and the brutal gangsters who come to meet them. The director's depiction of a young and ignorant (if resourceful) woman, alone in an alien land, is convincing. The last third of the film focuses on the choices that a pregnant Maria has to make in America, this strange new country, so full of promise and terror, in which she is stuck. Here the director moves properly to more transcendental themes without ever forgoing the immediacy of Maria as a real, totally live human being. It is quite astonishing how well this young actress holds up against the relentless, full-time scrutiny of Marston's camera.
Like Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," "Maria Full of Grace" seems proud to be a thriller, among other things, and it seeks always to entertain as well as to explore its themes and its central character. It is this fact that probably accounts for the audience award it won at Sundance and the kudos showered upon it at several other festivals. Yet Marston has also wisely chosen to de-dramatize the action occasionally as well, purposely neglecting, for example, to show the moment, early on, in which Maria rebels against her boss in the flower packing plant. The director must have been sorely tempted to let 'er rip here, but instead wisely chose to keep things low-key, building quietly to more important explosions later on. Throughout, manipulated by your Pavlovian art-film training, you know that this will all end badly, but refreshingly, it doesn't, not completely anyway, and there as well, perhaps, is a clue to the secret of the film's well-earned success.