Saturday, July 31, 2004

Maria Full of Grace

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

I like movies like Maria Full of Grace, which function almost like documentaries in how they give me a glance into a world outside my own experience. In some ways, they're better than a lot of documentaries, since the directors can get all the images that they envisioned when starting the project - or which they couldn't get, due to the extra-legal nature of the subject matter.

Of course, Maria is not just an examination of how drug mules get recruited and go about their business. It's about Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno, in her first role), and she's fairly interesting herself. She's intelligent and strong-willed, and that's both a blessing and a curse. She can see how, at seventeen, her life is already dead-ending, but the choices she makes to escape that dead end are rather self-serving and often dangerous, whether it be quitting her job, rejecting the help of her boyfriend after revealing that she has missed two periods, or, of course, swallowing sixty-two tiny ampuoles of heroin to smuggle past US Customs.

The mechanics of this are intriguing to watch; many movies pay this little attention, prefering to focus on the later revelation that - gasp! - the 17-year-old girl is smuggling drugs in her stomach. The systematic, practiced manner in which it plays out is more disturbing. Ms. Moreno and writer/director Joshua Marston are careful with how they portray Maria; she's a strong enough character to gain the audience's sympathy, but not quite to the point where we're hoping she delivers a bunch of drugs successfully.

The film is well-cast, with many of the actors appearing in their first feature. Moreno is the standout; she's attractive but keeps it dialed down, and doesn't shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of her character. Also good is Orlando Tobon as Don Fernando, the harried leader in New York's Colombian community whom Maria encounters in the film's second half.

Maria Full of Grace could have been a lecture, but deftly avoids that. It's easy to take away a better understanding of the pressures that will lead someone to do something as risky as working as a mule, but also succeeds in making that incidental. The poster says "based on 1,000 true stories", but there are other mules being followed, and it's Maria as an individual that elevates this film above the pack.

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