Maria Full Of Grace

on July 16, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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Seventeen-year-old Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) possesses a spirit that is too big and too bold for the stifling existence she leads in a small Colombian town. Each morning she rises before dawn to catch a bus to the industrial rose plantation where she works with her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), spending long days on her feet stripping the thorns off the stems of roses and preparing flower bouquets for export. She lives with her mother, sister and baby nephew, and her family depends on her paycheck to survive. But one day, discovering that she's pregnant by a boyfriend whom she doesn't love, Maria experiences morning sickness at work and, when her boss refuses to allow her a bathroom break, she abruptly quits.

Under pressure to find another job and eager to broaden her horizons, Maria's interest is piqued when a new friend tells her about a cool opportunity that involves travel. But, when he says the word "mule," Maria knows exactly what he's talking about: smuggling drugs into the United States. Enticed by the $5,000 payday and prepared for the ordeal by a mule who's done it before, Maria agrees to swallow 62 thumb-sized pellets filled with heroin in order to transport them to New York City, knowing full well that if even one of them breaks in transit, she'll die.

Less a film about the drug trade than an intimate portrait of a woman ensnared in it, "Maria Full of Grace" spares no gory detail in depicting the procedures and risks involved in such a transaction, from Maria's methodical ingestion of the meticulously weighed, mechanically pressed nuggets sealed in up to six layers of latex to the cleansing process required before she re-swallows them when they pass through her system too soon; from the violent demise of a fellow mule when a pellet breaks inside her body to the intricate network of medical workers, police and community liaisons who coordinate the return her corpse to her family.

Also at work here, beyond the tabloid aspects, are themes about immigration--how the promise of a new life is not without its sacrifices and what it's like to move to a strange new place where you don't speak the language while leaving your family behind. Writer/director Joshua Marston enters this experience through Maria, filming entirely in Spanish for an authenticity that emphasizes this cultural divide and shooting with a handheld camera that achieves an intimacy with and focus on Maria. Meanwhile, Moreno, a non-professional in her first film role, captures the adventurous spirit of her character from behind a sheet of long, silky black hair with a sympathetic presence that audiences can embrace. Hers is a story about risk, determination and survival that's at once of great eloquence and great import. Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez, Jhon Alex Toro, Patricia Rae and Orlando Tobon. Directed and written by Joshua Marston. Produced by Paul Mezey. A Fine Line release. Drama. Spanish-language; subtitled. Rated R for drug content and language. Running time: 101 min

Tags: tarring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez, Jhon Alex Toro, Patricia Rae and Orlando Tobon, Directed, written by Joshua Marston, Produced by Paul Mezey, Fine Line, Drama
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