January 23, 2005

MOVIES: Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, 2004)

Maria is 17 years old, and has just lost her job as an assembly-line flower packer, which is very bad news, since she is the primary support for her family -- mother, grandmother, sister, and infant nephew. With nowhere else to find work in her small town, she goes to Bogota, where she is recruited to smuggle drugs into the United States.

Joshua Marston's first feature film, Maria Full of Grace, is an unsentimental look at the human side of drug trafficking. It's told in so straightforward a style that it sometimes feels like a documentary, and it provides a detailed portrayal of the plain mechanics of drug smuggling. We see how the marshmallow-sized packets of cocaine are prepared, how the mules practice with large grapes to be able to swallow the packets, and so on.

The movie is anchored by a fine performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria. It's clear very quickly that Maria has a reckless and impulsive side. She makes a risky climb to a rooftop for no particular reason; when her nephew becomes ill, she dismisses her sister's concern as excessive worrying; she quits her job knowing very well how difficult it will be to find another.

That tendency, combined with her economic desperation, make it easy to understand why Maria agrees to become a "mule" for Javier, whose patter is smooth and reassuring. To be sure, Maria knows what she's getting into; she may be naive, but she is not an innocent.

When things go wrong on the trip -- one of the other mules dies when a drug packet breaks open in her stomach -- Maria's limited coping skills are pressed to the limit, as she tries to find a way to survive in New York, a task made more difficult by the presence of her hometown friend, Blanca, who has followed Maria into smuggling, and who is not a very bright girl. (It's one of Marston's few really unsubtle steps that the stupid girl is telegraphed as such by the fact that she's also plain and overweight.)

This section of the movie is the movie's weakest; it stretches the limits of disbelief that Maria would forget the threats Javier had made against her family if his drugs were not successfully delivered. And Marston occasionally crosses the line between asking us to understand Maria's criminal behavior and asking us to sympathize with it, a line I wasn't willing to cross. Still, it's a very well made movie, and Marston tells his story in a brisk, efficient, mimimalist style; it's surprising how little dialogue there is for some stretches.

And Catalina Sandino Moreno is a real discovery; her long face and large eyes are deeply expressive, and her performance is so sensitive and natural that it never feels like acting. She's the biggest reason to see the movie.

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