Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An excellent movie about the personal price of drug trafficking, Maria Full of Grace shows
the practice of smuggling dope from Columbia to the United States through the experience of
one eighteen-year old Colombiana. Beautifully made, it has not one word of moralizing or anti-drug
diatribe, yet it communicates perfectly just exactly who suffers the most from the War on Drugs.
Discontented Colombian rose packager Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is
sick of her family life and her unhelpful boyfriend. When she discovers she is pregnant she takes
the invitation of Franklin (John Álex Toro) to become a mule to smuggle hard drugs into the
United States. After lying to her mother and sister about her new job, she joins three other girls
on the same flight to New York, carrying dozens of latex-wrapped packages of dope in their intestines.
Writer-Director Joshua Marston has only one other IMDB credit before this film but his achievement
equals or surpasses films by Alex Cox and John Sayles, other Anglo directors drawn to make movies
in the Spanish language. Ecuador stands in for war-torn Colombia and the director
cared enough to dress sets and buildings to more closely resemble neighborhoods in the outskirts of
Marston's show looks like a Latin American film but has the feel of a U.S. independent
production. Besides his facility with the Spanish language, Marston found a dream actress for his
leading player. Catalina Sandino Moreno has to act with her eyes through the long silent in-flight
passages kept abuzz with looks and glances between the nervous smugglers. She is also excellent in
her emotional dialogue scenes. All of Marston's key players are fine, especially
his foursome of women. Catalina has strong interplay with her girlfriend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega),
Juana, another more experienced mule (Virgina Ariza) and Juana's sister Carla (Patricia Rae), an
immigrant living in Queens.
Maria Full of Grace is an education in the modern Latin American experience. Drug traffickers are a
tiny minority even in Colombia and Maria takes a huge gamble when she joins up with the smugglers,
who are presented not as Scarface sadists or madmen but cool and reassuring businessmen
playing the odds. Becoming a mule is
an invitation to three possible outcomes. If caught, the 'mule' is given a long prison term as an
Evil aggressor in the War on Drugs, even though she is obviously a desperate victims of the trade;
smugglers routinely place several mules on one flight figuring that the one who is caught will
provide a distraction for the others to slip by. Should any of the little vinyl pills of heroin
leak, the mule will die a painful death. And if the mule gets cold feet or the drug runners simply want
her to keep working, they can always use the mule's relatives in Colombia as hostages.
The film is a fascinating look at Latin American immigrants, the vast majority of which are earnest
and honest. Maria's harrowing adventure is her first time away from home and her first
trip in an airplane. She finds herself stranded in a foreign country with nobody she can turn to.
Barely skating by the DEA agents at the airport, Maria discovers her troubles are just beginning.
Maria Full of Grace keeps the tension high throughout. Thanks to the intelligence and
determination of its main character we make a strong emotional investment, dreading each
bad decision and anticipated pitfall. We are rewarded for our concern by an ending that
at least shows us that Maria will not repeat her mistake. Her time with Carla shows her the promise
of hope and a future, even as an unmarried, undocumented immigrant in New York.
The film will have a strong appeal to those American viewers who care about people in other
countries. The root of the drug problem is here in the United States, the ultimate consumer market
for all of this evil.
HBO's DVD of Maria Full of Grace is a fine enhanced transfer of this festival award
winner. The removable subtitles are easier to read than they were in the theater. The terrific
extra is director Marston's relaxed and informative commentary; he starts by saying he's grateful for
the opportunity to explain how the movie was made and then gives us 100 minutes of fascinating
detail, especially about the location shooting and his remarkable cast. Marston takes only a minute
to plainly state how the supposed 'War on Drugs' really works: Billions of dollars of foreign aid
to places like Colombia is mostly in the form of credit earmarked to buy arms and high tech
weaponry for 'security.' The money is spent on weapons and military helicopters from the U.S.. So the
billions in tax dollars are really a bonus to the arms industry, creating employment and profits
here. It's one of Freedom's biggest exports. Of course, none of this spent money ever makes a real
dent in the drug trade.
It's also interesting to find out that the portly travel agent in Queens who helps Maria is playing
himself - he's Orlan Tobon, and has been taking the cause of frightened and desperate immigrants,
some of them ensnarled by drug traffickers, for 35 years.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Maria Full of Grace rates:
Supplements: Director commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 21, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson