Maria Full of Grace Review
Perhaps recognising that certain tabloid qualities will no doubt exist in a film about female drug mules, Maria Full of Grace points firmly in the direction of the real. Before writer-director Joshua Marston gets to the drama of such event he is firstly at pains to create an atmosphere. As such we witness Maria, the film’s protagonist, through her home life – sharing a house with four generations of her family – and work environment, through religion and the tiny role occupied by her boyfriend, even though he’s recently gotten her pregnant. The beauty of all of this is that fact it’s so unassuming; Marston doesn’t pry, he simply witnesses. Indeed, the scene in which Maria decides to become a mule almost slips by unnoticed, and of course this is why it works so forcefully. There are no schematic forces guiding our characters, rather things just kind of happen.
Yet it’s not so much the docudrama stylings as the details they reveal which prove so important. Cinematically Maria Full of Grace isn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Anyone who’s experienced a Ken Loach film or an example of Italian neo-realism will be fully aware of the approach here. Not that Marston’s film is in any way tired or overly familiar, rather the style becomes so unobtrusive that we barely notice it. As such the subject matter takes full command and the tiny moments hold sway. Indeed, we leave the film not so much with memories of Maria herself, but the logistics of becoming a mule: the sheer number of pellets they swallow for one trip; the manufacture of these pellets; the way in which they practise how to swallow them using grapes; Maria’s young age (we’re told she’s only seventeen).
Of course, this also demonstrates the strength of the performances as they too become almost taken for granted. We don’t once question their motives or the overall realism, but simply accept them. There’s no grandstanding, nor theatrics, nor melodrama – and the same can be said of Maria Full of Grace itself. Indeed, such is its desire to remain low-key (right down to the fact that, despite being mostly US-financed and made by a mostly American crew, all the characters speak colloquial Spanish as opposed to English) that there is the danger the film could simply slip right past an audience. And herein lies the rub: Maria Full of Grace is work which is far easier to appreciate than it is to love. An undoubtedly fine achievement, it remains perhaps too low-key to create a big effect. Certainly, its unoppressive style works in its favour with regards to the narrative, but with regards to the audience, maybe it could have been a little more forceful.
Maria Full of Grace comes with the presentation you’d expect for its Region 2 UK release. The film is given an anamorphic transfer (at a ratio of 1.78:1) and comes with its original DD5.1 Spanish soundtrack. In both cases they clearly demonstrate the films low-budget origins (it was primarily financed by HBO films), yet the disc copes well. The graininess of the film stock may be apparent, of course, but never produces any problems. Likewise, we may not be able to discern every line of dialogue with the utmost clarity, but then this is wholly the result of the film’s production and shouldn’t be blamed on the disc itself. Rather the only problem is the fact that the English subtitles come burnt into the image as opposed to being disc generated and optional, as was the case with the Region 1 release.
As for extras these amount to a commentary by Marston plus the theatrical trailer (and, if you count such things, the disc also opens with a trailer for the Peter Mullen film On a Clear Day and the documentary Rock School). Understandably, the latter has little bearing on the disc, but the commentary itself is well worth the effort. Indeed, Marston keeps going throughout covering all aspects of the film’s production. As such we learn of the various studio suggestions he received whilst touting the screenplay (unsurprisingly, many wanted it to be either wholly or in part in English), his ideas on the political ramifications of such a project, and what he considers to be minor lapses in realism. All told it makes for a fascinating listen and partially makes up for the lack of worthwhile extras elsewhere.