Maria Full of Grace Movie Review
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.