At the 2003 Venice Film Festival, Charlize Theron's emotionally muscular serial-killer turn in "Monster" shared Best Actress honors with another powerful, but lower-key, performance by newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno in "Maria Full of Grace," playing a poor, pregnant Columbian teenager who becomes a drug mule more out of obstinate ambition than resigned desperation.
"Monster" went on to win Theron an Oscar. Now "Maria," which also won awards at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival, is finally getting a chance to cast its traumatic spell in a theatrical run.
A straightforward story that pulls no punches about the dangers of the drug trade but at the same time paints few characters as out-and-out villains, this frank creation of first-time writer-director Joshua Marston begins with headstrong Maria marching out of an abusive job at a rose nursery -- the one reliable employer in her moldering home town in the Columbian mountains -- and heading to Bogota to find work as a maid.
But she's soon seduced by the allure of making hundreds of U.S. dollars by simply swallowing condoms packed with cocaine and taking a plane (something exciting she's never done) to New York City (somewhere exotic she's never been). Of course, the "simply" isn't as simple as it seems.
With a low-budget-blessed intimacy created in part with handheld photography, Marston depicts the perils of the mule's process, from the sweetly veiled threats of the grandfatherly smuggler who fills Maria's stomach with 60-plus hard-packed pellets of pure coke, to the revolting notion of washing and re-swallowing any lethal-if-broken pellets that make an early intestinal exit, and on to the finer points of U.S. Customs interrogations.
But while Moreno's portrayal of pride, trepidation and chutzpah prove spellbinding throughout the film, the character of Maria becomes harder and harder to sympathize with as she starts making stupid mistakes -- like losing both the address of the dilapidated hotel where she's to meet the New York drug dealers and the emergency number she's to call if something goes wrong.
Her poor judgment gets only worse when those dealers become treacherous, and fearing for her life, Maria drags a fellow mule -- her petulant puppy of a best friend from home who foolishly decided to follow in Maria's footsteps -- out onto the streets of New York, with the cocaine, leaving them homeless and hunted.
It never seems to cross Maria's mind that her family is under threat if she disappears, and at first she makes little effort to resolve her predicament, behaving as if she can just make a new life for herself in America. But while this incongruity weighs on the film's veracity and diminishes empathy for its heroine, Moreno never seems disingenuous or lost in the character's faults. Even when Maria seems stupid, she seems real in a very potent way.