Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a 17-year old in rural Colombia and the breadwinner for her family, a situation that becomes more than she can bear when she realizes she is pregnant. When her condition causes her to leave her job's production line one too many times, her boss fires her. Boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero) is little comfort and she rejects his proposal to marry out of need or obligation.
At a weekend party, she meets hip motorcyclist Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro) who offers her a ride to Bogotá where she's going to look for work. He suggests she might be interested in a "cool," well-paying job. With limited options, she agrees, and he puts her in contact with the head man of a gang that employs "mules." Not four-legged beasts of burden you find on the farm but, rather, people who carry a high-risk cargo: plastic pellets of heroin -- in their stomachs -- past U.S. customs agents at American airports.
Each pellet weighs 10 grams. Each is 4.2 cm long and 1.4 cm wide. Narco-mules swallow from 25 to 50 of these choke-inducing foreign objects at a time. The more they ingest and deliver, the more they earn. One breaks and you go out in physical torment. When Maria agrees to it, she enters the physical training and the perils of the operation. As you see the step-by-step detail of how it's done and the extreme stress it puts on one's body and mind, you couldn't be more spellbound if you were witnessing a death row inmate being prepared for the injection. By this time, we're so closely attached to what happens to her, it affects our heartbeat.
Second time writer-director Joshua Marston (Bus to Queens, 1999) has hit on a subject that mesmerizes with timeliness and natural tension, and he presents it with perceptive understanding and masterful storytelling. Moreno, in her first major film role, plays Maria with such resolve and dignity that she holds us captive with each determined step, each new fear-inspiring demand. The level of concern over what she bravely endures is key to the impact of this starkly realistic movie. The supporting cast is up to the mark and technical values are everything they need to be, but the adhesive grip on your attention is hers.
Maria Full of Grace is high drama achieved with modest means. Its straightforward honesty and solid story structure merited it Sundance and Berlin Film Festival awards (2003) and will undoubtedly merit Marston the spotlight of international cinema audiences and, if there's an ounce of wisdom in Hollywood, a studio offer or two.
Aka Maria, Llena Eres de Gracia.
H: It's what's for dinner.
Run time: 101 mins
In Theaters: Friday 2nd April 2004
Box Office USA: $6.5M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: Fine Line Features
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Fresh: 135 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Joshua Marston
Producer: Paul S. Mezey, Jaime Osorio Gómez
Screenwriter: Joshua Marston
Starring: Catalina Sandino Moreno as María Álvarez, Guilied Lopez as Lucy Díaz, Yenny Paola Vega as Blanca, John Álex Toro as Franklin, Virgina Ariza as Juana, Rodrigo Sánchez Borhorquez as Supervisor, Charles Albert Patiño as Felipe, Wilson Guerrero as Juan, Johanna Andrea Mora as Diana Álvarez, Evangelina Morales as Rosita, Jaime Osorio Gómez as Javier, Victor Macias as Pellet Maker, Hugo Ferro as Pharmacist, Ana Maria Acosta as Stewardess, Patricia Rae as Carla
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