Maria Full of Grace

Maria Full of Grace won the Audience Award at the 2004 Sundance Festival (it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize) and its star, newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno tied with Charlize Theron's performance in Monster for Best Actress at the 2004 Berlin International Film Festival. That's a lot of accolades, but after seeing the film, it's clear why. Maria Full of Grace is a harrowing film about the journey of a drug mule from rural Columbia to the immigrant ghettos of New York. It's also the first feature length film from writer/director Joshua Marston. Marston tells his story simply and starkly, letting the situations speak for themselves. He does not throw in any sort of cliché moments or overwrought drama. Instead, by taking a straightforward and direct look at things, the inherent danger of the entire situation seems magnified.

A sense of futility and inevitability permeates the film. Maria Alvarez (Moreno) works in a flower factory in Columbia. Her family is dirt poor, and they use the money she earns to survive. Her life changes when she discovers she is pregnant, and her boyfriend is too much of an idiot to do anything reasonable about it. Opportunity presents itself in the form of Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro, The First Night, Maximum Penalty), a sleazy guy that works for some drug dealers. Alvarez discovers that she can make a lot of money by trafficking drugs across the border by swallowing nearly sixty pellets full of cocaine. The danger is great, but the rewards are greater.

Marston steadily builds the tension with each scene. One of the more harrowing scenes comes as she is preparing to board her flight. A doctor sprays some aneasthetic in her throat, and she begins the painful process of swallowing the drugs. She was warned that if she loses any, the dealers will go after her family. Worse, if any of the pellets break, she will die. It's hard to imagine things getting worse, but Marston manages to up the ante as Alvarez comes closer to America. The really scary part is that everything is so matter-of-fact. Although she is concerned, Alvarez seems eerily resigned to whatever may happen. The histrionics come in the form of her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), who basically tags along. The only other person Maria can ask for help is Lucy (Giulied Lopez), who has been on a few of these trips before.

Every moment is dangerous. After Maria arrives in America, things actually get worse. One interesting aspect of this film is that Maria seems neutral on the entire issue of drugs. She is only doing this as a means to survive. The money she will earn is worth the trip and the potential dangers, as explained to her. Moreno seems resigned to much of everything that happens. She is in a stupor for much of the film as she just wants to get things over with. It is as if she is numbing herself to everything around her. The only thing that breaks her out of this is when Lucy begins looking sick on the plane. It's simple, stark, and very gripping.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 41 minutes, Rated R for drug content and language.

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