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.
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 Bogotá.
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 much of the film - the long silent in-flight passages are carried only by looks and glances between the nervous smugglers - but is also excellent in 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 serves as 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. If any of the little vinyl pills of heroin leak, the mule will die a painful death. And if anything goes wrong or the drug runners simply want the mule 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 in Maria, dreading each bad decision and anticipated pitfall. We are rewarded for our concern, however 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 other people in other countries long enough to realize 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 with her problem, 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: