Maria Full Of Grace

Maria Full Of Grace

****

Reviewed by: The Exile

Most movies about drugs typically focus on the top or the bottom of the substance-abuse pyramid, on the ruthless kingpins who control the business or the pathetic consumers awaiting their next fix. Even when we glimpse the lives of the middlemen, we rarely see their lowliest class, the essential yet expendable "mules" who regularly risk horrible deaths for the chance at a better life.

Joshua Marston's eye-opening debut feature, Maria Full of Grace, unflinchingly redresses this imbalance. What's remarkable about his filmmaking is the ability to present scenes of shocking defilement, like a beautiful 17-year-old girl forcing 62 heroin-filled pellets down her throat, without a hint of prurience or gratuitousness. He wants us to see the horrifying details of a mule's life because he wants us to care. By forcing us to watch scared young girls practice with grapes soaked in oil, their gag reflexes suppressed by anesthetic and their digestive systems slowed by medication, he reveals a level of exploitation and abuse that's impossible to forget.

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Though neither documentary nor polemic, Maria Full of Grace is based on stories Marston gleaned from recent Colombian immigrants in Queens, New York, and the movie feels driven by a realistic sense of outrage. As it begins, Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a worker on a rose plantation not far from Bogota. Sweating on an assembly line, she strips thorns from flowers bound for countries where people can afford such luxuries. The job is little more than slavery; so when her odious boss complains about bathroom breaks, Maria quits, much to the fury of her anxious mother and selfish, single-parent sister. As the family's sole source of income, she is instructed to apologize to her employer and beg to be rehired.

But when we witness Maria being comforted by Juan (Wilson Guerrero), her decent-but-dull boyfriend, we know she's about to make other, more perilous choices. Gazing restlessly over Juan's shoulder at the empty sky, her frustration is clear - she needs to feel more than just resignation and hopelessness. And this is where Marston takes an impressive risk. He needs us on Maria's side and audiences will usually forgive immoral acts when economic survival is at stake. More difficult, however, is the absolution of a heroine whose grace resides in a willingness to pursue something more fundamentally human than the desire for money - the longing for experience.

Marston auditioned 800 girls before finding his Maria - and what a find she is. A native Colombian who has never acted in a film before, Moreno has the face of Raphael's Madonna and displays a gravitas far beyond her 23 years. Her Maria is moody, yet restrained, whether enduring a tense interrogation by U.S. customs officials, or imprisonment in a New Jersey flophouse with bored thugs waiting to collect the excreted pellets. And though the film is a little too busy with sub-plots that distract us from Maria's journey, both physical and psychological, Moreno is never less than completely believable.

Before writing Maria Full of Grace, Marston flirted briefly with a career in photojournalism and the desire to document is evident in his unfussy shooting style and casting of characters like Orlando Tobon, a real-life counsellor to Colombian immigrants in Queens. The Colombian community itself is presented as decent, close-knit and pragmatic about the sometimes dubious means by which its members reach the United States. Like them, Marston knows that in capitalist terms there's not much difference between the drug business and those beautiful, thornless roses.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2005
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A Columbian teenager becomes a drugs "mule" to escape the deadly routine of her poor village.
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Director: Joshua Marston

Writer: Joshua Marston

Starring: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Virginia Ariza, Johanna Andrea Mora, Wilson Guerrero, John Alex Toro, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae, Orlando Tobon

Year: 2004

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/Colombia

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