MARIA FULL OF GRACE (María, llena eres de gracia)

(director/writer: Joshua Marston; cinematographer: Jim Denault; editors: Anne McCabe/Lee Percy; music: Leonardo Heiblum/Jacobo Lieberman; cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria), Yenny Paola Vega (Blanca), Guilied López (Lucy), Jhon Alex Toro (Franklin), Patricia Rae (Carla), Wilson Guerrero (Juan), Jaime Osorio Gómez (Javier), Orlando Tobón (Don Fernando), Johanna Andrea Mora (Diana); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Paul S. Mezey; HBO Films and Fine Line Features; 2004-USA/Colombia-in Spanish with English subtitles)
“Moreno gets us to root for her even though we disapprove of the illegal activity she is pursuing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Joshua Marston is a white New York-based writer/director who makes his directing debut in this riveting drama set in Colombia and Queens, New York, that was developed at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. It earnestly zeroes in with great detail on the shadowy workings of the narcotics underworld and its worldwide reach, covering in an authentic way a routine drug operation going down. The film’s young star Catalina Sandino Moreno gives an unforgettable debut performance as the beleaguered heroine who courageously tries to find a better life for herself despite the overwhelming obstacles she faces and her lack of options. Moreno gets us to root for her even though we disapprove of the illegal activity she is pursuing. Her understated brilliant expressive performance puts a human face on so many others like her whom we never really know. Ms. Moreno is a native Colombian and prior to this stunning film debut had only acted in amateur theater.

It should be noted the film’s title is derived from the Catholic prayer “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” According to the Catholic tradition “those words of the angel God announced a divine favor. God would be with Mary. She would bring Jesus Christ into the world.” There are religious allusions throughout the narrative including the portrayal of a pregnant young heroine as possibly the mother of a Jesus-like child, after all she removes thorns and is an innocent who makes her way in the hostile world with a caring attitude to the suffering of others. In this religious allegory she is tested to see if she can make the right choices in the variety of people she meets, who range from good to bad types. Through her bitter experiences she learns to make better choices.

“Maria Full of Grace” follows the strongheaded 17-year-old Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) from her impoverished rural town just outside of Bogotá, where the attractive girl is an assembly-line worker in a rose plantation–stripping thorns from flowers. Her meager salary supports her always complaining grandmother, mother, and single mom sister, who foolishly squander her salary buying useless medicines for her baby nephew. Maria quits when upset with her boss because he won’t allow her to go to the bathroom. When family members ask her to apologize to the boss and beg for her job back, she only balks. Maria also has to deal with her pregnancy by her loser boyfriend, Juan (Wilson Guerrero), who begrudgingly offers to marry her. She turns him down by saying she couldn’t marry anyone she didn’t love.

Maria is on her way to Bogotá to ask her friend if she can help get her a maid job, but on the road she meets a recent acquaintance from a block party–the smooth-talking motorcyclist Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro). Seeing how desperate she is for money, Franklin has an easy sale when he offers her a chance to be a drug mule and smuggle heroin into the United States. In Bogotá, Maria is hooked up with the drug boss Javier (Jaime Osorio Gómez ), who smoothly glosses over the dangers of her mission. For around $5,000 she ingests 62 nuggets of heroin sealed with latex and dental floss, and travels by plane to New York City. The drug boss has arranged for her to be met at the airport and taken to a Jersey City hotel, where the pellets will come out in her stool.

There are several other drug mules on the flight, including Maria’s clinging plantation worker friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) and a confused young woman named Lucy (Guilied López). Having made this run two other times, Lucy helps Maria with some of the tricks of the trade. At Newark Airport, U.S. customs officials pull Maria out of line and question her about her visit. When her responses are inadequate, she’s asked to submit to an X-ray body search. But a urine test shows that Maria is pregnant and even though they realize she is carrying in drugs, they let her go rather than risk harm to the unborn baby–showing that even these custom officials can be human.

But Maria’s problems are not over. In the Jersey City hotel, Lucy feels sick because one of the pellets burst open in her body–which will result in her death. Maria and Blanca panic and flee with the pellets to the Jackson Heights apartment of Lucy’s sister Carla (Patricia Rae), despite knowing that by their actions they have placed their families in danger from the drug lords. The pregnant Carla is a recent immigrant who is skeptical of Maria’s story, but helps anyway because she has a soft spot for the frightened young girl. Kind-hearted neighborhood community activist Don Fernando (Orlando Tobón), who runs a small travel agency, lends a hand in helping Colombian immigrants and is glad to help Maria as a favor to Carla. He quickly understands Maria’s problem and gives her good advice. In this first acting experience for Jackson Heights resident Mr. Tobón, he basically plays the same part he does in real-life.

By the end of her journey, which turns out to be an emancipating one, Maria must decide whether she wants to return Colombia, a place of limited opportunities, or take a chance and start over in the affluent United States.

Marston does a nice job letting everything unfold naturally, never pushing an agenda in your face or cheaply preaching. Even though this film is so exacting in its detailed look as if it were a documentary instead of a work of fiction, it nevertheless makes everything feel human and the drama always remains unpredictable, intense and meaningful. We clearly see the growing pains and determination to succeed on Maria’s troubled face, which gives this film the human drama it needs. On top of that, it is compelling in getting across its more hardened viewpoint of comparing how ruthlessly similar the drug trade is to normal business practices in this age of globalization–both bosses act in the same cold-hearted way. “Full of Grace” shows in a harrowing way how a “have” country, either directly or indirectly, exacts a human toll on a “have not” country that has the goods it needs (either heroin or roses).

Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace (2004)