In a year plagued by bloated, soulless, computer driven movie-star disaster epics, along comes a movie so human and powerful it can melt paint.
Maria Full of Grace, the first-time feature ($3 million HBO) by Joshua Marston, 35, a graduate of NYU Film School, is the coming-to-America tale for our times, the story of Maria Alvarez, 17, a rustic living near Bogotá, Columbia who chooses to become a drug-running “mule” to escape her dead-end life. Spunky, pregnant and unmarried, Maria, (winningly portrayed by Catalina Sandino Moreno) is too smart to settle for the future she is already living – loser boyfriend, working in a rose factory stripping off thorns, supporting her leechy family. After quarreling with her slovenly boss, she loses her lousy job. No problem getting another equally miserable gig; but Maria knows where that road leads. The story, told through Maria’s point of view, makes it perfectly clear why thousands of young women are willing to risk their lives for a chance to make 5000 USD carrying up to 62 grams of heroin sealed in bullet-shaped latex casings inside their stomachs on a white-knuckle flight from Bogotá to JFK.
Faster then you can say drug cartel, Maria hooks up with Bogotá drug traffickers to learn how to transport the pellets. Director Marston’s research on the torturous training of a mule shot in the unflinching style of a documentary is one of the film’s most brutal scenes. With the hypnotic pull of watching a train wreck, the camera records Maria’s creepily gentle training as a bottom feeder in the deadly world of drug trafficking.
Maria and the other mules-in-training practice ingesting up to 25 grams – substituting grapes for the heroin, which they learn to keep down with soup. Maria is a star pupil; she can get down 62 grams. The initial indoctrination is gentle; but there is never any doubt of its grim reality should they fail: death or arrest.
Unlike many going-to-America films which use stereotypical characters and condescending explanations that stop the flow of the film, Maria’s motivation to survive and succeed is clear as a bell from the first frame. The one nod to blatant metaphor, the pellet as communion wafer acknowledges the religious fervor of her culture, the abuse of its women, the drug problem without belaboring it. It might be shot like a documentary, but it’s a drama
What is impressive about this film is that it got made. “Maria” shows that a smart movie with an uncluttered storyline still works. It’s touched nerves in film festivals world-wide. Though underwritten by HBO at some point in its gestation, it is not a Hollywood movie. There are no special effects, no orgasmic explosions. A film like this doesn’t need any.
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