Sunday, January 23, 2005

Maria Full of Grace

Maria Full of Grace
Directed by: Joshua Marston
2004, rated R
5 stars
Spanish with English subtitles

Most movies about the drug trade concern themselves solely with the drugs and the effects that they have on the people who use them. Films like Requiem for a Dream, Blow, and Traffic all focus on the issue of drug use, in connection with the drug trade. This year sees the release of a film that concentrates specifically on the drug trade, and more specifically, on the innocent people who get ensnared by it. Maria Full of Grace, directed by Joshua Marston, centers on the young Colombian women who are used as “mules” to import illegal drugs into the United States. The story is so focused on these women and their stories that not once in the entire film does any character actually use the drugs that are transported.

Maria Alvarez, perfectly played by Catalina Sandino Morena, is a seventeen-year-old Colombian girl working a dead-end job in an industrial rose plantation. Maria’s meager earnings help subsidize her family, consisting of her grandmother, mother, sister, and her sister’s illegitimate baby. Maria’s strong-willed personality, however, soon gets her into trouble with her boss, resulting in her quitting her job. Finding herself pregnant with the child of a boyfriend with whom she has no intention of remaining, and with the growing family obligations and pressure that surround her, she becomes tempted by the substantial amount of money that being a “mule” would promise. She accepts the extremely dangerous job of swallowing 60 or more 10-gram pellets full of heroin and transporting them to the United States. Her new boss, played superbly by Jaime Osorio Gomez, soothingly instructs her on the conduct required and rules to follow on the venture, appearing for all the world as a caring paternal figure—until he gently reminds her that should any one of the pellets go missing along the way, then he would be forced to pay a very ungentle visit to her family. Despite Maria’s protests, her best friend, Blanca, played by Yenny Paola, also takes a job as a mule. What sounded like such a simple plan in the mild words of their boss soon turns into a nightmare of an experience when the girls reach New York City. As one of the other girls disappears, the terrified Maria and Blanca decide to take the pellets and run. Not understanding a word of English, the only person to whom they can turn is to the sister of the missing girl. Carla, (Patricia Rae), who lives in New York City, but whom the two girls have never met, is skeptical at their insistence that they were close friends of her sister, but eventually allows them to stay in her tiny apartment. Through Carla they encounter friendly figures, such as the genuinely paternal Don Fernando (Orlando Tobon), who offers to find them reasonable work and an inexpensive apartment. Their experiences give them a glimpse of the possibilities of America. Each girl weighs the decisions carefully and in the end, each chooses a different path.

The compelling story is truly what makes Maria Full of Grace so captivating. The film doesn’t clutter itself with unrealistic action or dramatic suspense. It presents the girls’ story in as simple, believable, and utterly realistic manner as possible. Nothing is glamorized or seems at all false. Everything from the acting to the cinematography is as natural and real as if the audience were simply looking through a window, catching a glimpse of another, largely unknown part of life. The sharp contrasts made between the poverty and third-world nature of the Colombian city of Bogotá and the crowded, skyscraper-filled, busy-ness of New York are astounding, and the audience can really feel both the alienation and alluring appeal that both girls feel in their new environment. This glance at the difficult decisions that must be made, and the realization that the type of extortion presented in the film actually happens, makes the story incredibly interesting and absorbing. Here is the real reality… and it’s much more interesting to watch than Survivor.

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