Maria Full of Grace Review
Joshua Marston's feature-debut as writer-director is a phenomenally powerful piece of work. Set in present day Columbia, Marston follows the story of Maria Álvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) as she stumbles into the drug trafficking trade with potentially disastrous results.
Seventeen-year-old Maria lives shares a house with four generations of her family, has a dead-end job on a dethorning roses on a plantation and has a dead-beat boyfriend, Juan (Wilson Guerrero). When she discovers she is pregnant, her life quickly turns upside down as she walks out of her job and breaks up with Juan. Her search for new work and a new life takes her to Bogotá but as she sets out for the city the smooth talking Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro) suggests she becomes a mule and transports drugs from Columbia to New York.
After taking Franklin up on his offer Maria meets her new employer and sets about preparing herself for her new career. With the help of Lucy (Guilied Lopez) she quickly learns how to swallow the rubber-coated heroin and once mastered she sets of on her first visit to the US. However, not everything goes to plan. Of four mules, one is taken into custody by US customs, and Maria herself only escapes arrest thanks to her pregnancy and the fact that no x-rays can be performed. Lucy quickly becomes ill and when their US contacts discover this she is murdered and the drugs removed by force - causing Maria and her friend Blanca to go on the run with nowhere to turn but Lucy's sister.
Maria Full of Grace tackles a very difficult subject and for the most part succeeds. Everything is underplayed and Marston's direction keeps a very tight reign ensuring that none of the performances ever manage to become too powerful. Catalina Sandino Moreno was quite rightly nominated for an Oscar for her performance; although she appears to be almost passive in her emotion, just one glance at her face tells a story, and her eyes in particular manage to draw you in and feel exactly as she does despite very few outward signs. Even when she's called on to be more intense the rawness of the emotion she expresses is far more powerful than anything designed to forcibly make the viewer feel sympathy.
Marston's film never attempts any kind of spectacle and doesn't resort to any cheap tricks to make you feel anything for any of the characters. While we know Maria's decisions are rarely the right ones, we can see why she makes them and as with every day life it's not the decisions that make the difference, it's the way that you handle them. Maria can see her life is spiraling out of control, but rather than let go and give up, she continues to try to make things right - sometimes in the process making things worse.
The film suffers a little in it's pacing with a little too much time exploring Maria's life in Columbia before she quits her job. Marston doesn't let the story drag excessively but at the same time there are other areas of the film where more focus may have been of benefit - Maria appears to get through US customs far too easily, it's as if because she's pregnant and can't be x-rayed she can just walk free. However to focus on such small issues misses the point of the film - and that is to give an insight into an industry of which none of us really has any knowledge and to highlight the people who suffer and die to carry drugs around the world.
Maria Full of Grace gets a suitable low-key release by HBO Video with a simple one-disc release. The main feature is subtitled in English, Spanish and French.
Picture and Sound
The film was shot on a fairly low budget and this results in a somewhat harsh picture riddled with grain and sharply contrasting colours. Thankfully, the DVD copes with this admirably with the difficult-to-handle grain posing no problems. The picture is anamorphic and in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is fine - it's never really called on to do anything more than you'd expect from a more basic sound format, but it's nice and clear and I have no complaints.
Maria Full of Grace was never meant to be an audio-visual showpiece and the DVD is perfectly adequate in presenting the film.
The extras are limited to a selection of trailers for the film and a good director's commentary. Marston is obviously more than happy to talk about his film and uses the opportunity to good effect with huge amounts of detail given to us by an engaging host. Of particular interest are his thoughts and experiences on the location shooting and it was also interesting to learn that real-life immigrant helper, Orlan Tobon, plays himself in the film.
Maria Full of Grace is an extremely affecting film and one that could have lost all of its power in the wrong hands. Catalina Sandino Moreno's central performance is the lynch-pin of the film and it's her understanding of the material tied to Marston's light directorial touch that makes everything work.
The DVD is a reasonably satisfying release with the commentary providing enough extra material to make a purchase worthwhile.