This powerful drama leaves Judge Lacey Worrell full of praise.
How far will she go before she's gone too far?
Maria Full of Grace is a harrowing, suspenseful, but ultimately sympathetic portrait of people on the lowest rungs of the international drug trade. Focusing on a young woman apprehensive about a dreary future in her provincial hometown, the story is one that is shared by many people the world over, who are willing to take a dangerous risk to improve their lot in life but are unaware of many of the potential consequences of their decision.
Facts of the Case
Maria spends her days in a dreary factory in her native Colombia, stripping thorns off of roses. Her world is confining; she turns over her meager earnings to her mother, she is trapped in a house with her bitter sister, and at work she must ask for the smallest of privileges, even to use the restroom. On top of these troubles, she also learns she is pregnant by her indifferent boyfriend.
A chance meeting lures Maria into the dangerous world of drug smuggling. Tempted by the relatively huge sum of money she is offered, Maria is schooled in the practice of swallowing balloons filled with heroin, a risky method of smuggling that will result in instant death if even one of the balloons ruptures in her stomach. As Maria makes the perilous journey by plane to the United States, the remainder of the film is a study in international intrigue, suspense, and the choices Maria must make that will seal her fate for good.
The sad truth is that, out of the hundreds of films I watch each year, few remain more than a pleasant memory. It's not gushing to say that Maria Full of Grace is one of the best films I've seen. Ever. A graphic, unpleasant topic is handled with such dignity by writer-director Joshua Marston and lead actress Catalina Sandino Moreno that Maria Full of Grace is one of those films that will leave viewers contemplating the plot…and its real-life parallels…for days afterward.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a privileged culture that affords so many opportunities may at first wonder why people would go to such lengths for $5,000. Think about it. Would you take a significant risk with your own life for a promise of $5,000? It is certainly a significant sum, but with a fairly good chance that you may die or at the very least be arrested before you ever see the money, would it really be worth it? About thirty minutes into Maria Full of Grace, the protagonist's life of painful desperation and boredom in her native Colombia is so painstakingly laid out that her willingness to enter into the drug trade is understandable and sympathetic. When Maria's close friend, Blanca, speaks wistfully of wishing to use the money to buy her mother a proper place to live, the point is made that in all reality, there is no other way for these girls to rise above the circumstances into which they have been born.
As Maria, newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno is an absolute revelation. In the crucial first third of the film, she is forced to convey a wide array of emotions using only her eyes and very little dialogue. She is a strikingly beautiful, exotic young woman who at the same time appears to be the girl next door; she manages to fill Maria with an otherworldliness and feisty spirit that make the plot developments completely believable, despite Maria's naïveté (she has never before traveled beyond Bogotá). Even in the final frames of the film, in which there is no dialogue, Moreno's natural acting talent is evident, bringing the film to a strong conclusion. Here's hoping Moreno receives more exposure than has the equally fantastic America Ferrera of Real Women Have Curves.
The cinematography is also compelling, especially the outdoor scenes in Colombia. Viewers will be left feeling as though they are actually present in the squalid factory, Maria's cramped living quarters, and the breathtaking countryside that is briefly glimpsed. The commentary by writer-director Marston is the only extra feature, and it is worth checking out. He gives a terrific amount of detail on the painstaking creation of the film, from interviews with real-life, currently incarcerated drug mules, to research with U.S. Customs on the role profiling plays in identifying smugglers. While it is rare that the cover art of a DVD stands out, on this one it is particularly intriguing to see Moreno in a pose not unlike a churchgoer accepting a communion wafer—except that, instead of a communion wafer, she is about to receive a balloon of heroin. Powerful stuff.
If this film leaves you wanting more, check out the powerful Charles S. Dutton miniseries The Corner, which is told from the point of view of addicts and dealers. Like Maria Full of Grace, it paints a more complex picture of the drug world than just the stereotypical "bad guys vs. good guys" that is so commonplace on both the small and big screens.
The overall presentation of Maria Full of Grace on DVD is about average; the picture is at times grainy, and the sound is adequate but not spectacular. The muted colors, especially in the scenes that take place in Colombia, however, assist in creating a sense of Maria's limited prospects in life. While the visual qualities do detract from the film's score slightly, they should not be a deterrent to seeing this film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Don't be turned off by the fact that, because of Maria's role as a drug mule, the inevitable bodily functions are involved. Take it from someone who tends to be squeamish—the scenes are handled honestly yet tastefully and will not send viewers running for cover. If you are not a fan of subtitles, take heart: Several minutes in, you will be so captivated by the story that the necessity of reading the subtitles won't matter.
One could argue that a fictional drug mule, who despite an existence filled with poverty and despair ultimately contributes to the worldwide spread of drug use, is unworthy of a sympathetic audience. However, this film underscores the fact that the problem is much bigger and more complex, making it impossible to point a finger at…and judge…this individual's motivations and actions.
This powerful, moving film more than deserved the awards it received at the 2004 Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. It is painful and real and, in the end, unexpectedly uplifting and validating.
DVD Verdict faithful are ordered by the court to see this film at once.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Joshua Marston
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