Maria Full of Grace Review
A powerful, Spanish-language debut from American director and scriptwriter Joshua Marston, Maria Full of Grace is borne on the spirited shoulders of lead Catalina Sandino Moreno. Oscar-nominated and the winner of a best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival, Moreno’s portrayal of a pregnant Colombian drug mule is all the more remarkable for being her first film role.
Originating from a New York café conversation Marston had with a former mule, the film has a semi-documentary feel and projects the authenticity of careful research.
Working on the production line of a flower plantation in a small town near Bogotá, 17-year-old Maria is frustrated by her job, feckless boyfriend and suffocating family. Sacked for insolence and finding herself expectant, she is heading to the city to find employment when she reencounters a young man she met at a party. Offering her a lift, he senses her desperation and tempts her with the promise of $5000 drug smuggling. She agrees and meets his boss, an avuncular figure and scarcely the sadistic crimelord of stereotype, though he calmly threatens reprisals if she reneges on the deal.
Determined to succeed, Maria befriends Lucy (Guilied López), an experienced mule, learning to swallow 65 pellets of cocaine tightly wrapped in condoms. Any split pellet would mean a horrible death and she is angered to find her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) following her career path. The two argue, but find themselves on a flight to America with Lucy and another mule when events take a turn for the worst.
A companion piece of sorts to Steven Soderburgh’s Traffic, which chronicled the supply line to America from Mexico rather than the Columbia, the film can almost be seen as the missing first link in Soderburgh’s chain, a vivid depiction of the harsh realities facing those at the bottom of the smuggling business. Shot in New York and Ecuador, Columbia deemed too violent for the safety of the crew, Maria is predominantly peopled with inexperienced or first time actors. Orlando Tobón for example, who operates as a counsellor and fix-it man for the Columbian community in Queens, became a script advisor and reprises reality playing Don Fernando, the man who assists mules in trouble when they arrive. The script largely rejects sentimentality and the villains and victims, such as they are, are believable, driven by economic necessity and the possibility of escaping dead-end lives.
Despite its apparent veracity, the film is thrilling in parts. One sequence, where Maria narrowly eludes arrest at airport customs because of her pregnancy is especially tense. There is a tautness to the narrative arc of Marston’s story and the film shares the drive of its heroine.
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