Maria Full of Grace tells the story of a young Colombian woman who becomes involved in the international drug trade. Gary Couzens reviews this drama containing an Oscar-nominated performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno, which is now showing on limited release in the UK and Ireland.
Colombia, the present day. Seventeen-year-old Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) lives in a small rural town just to the north of Bogotá. She shares her house with her grandmother, mother, sister and baby nephew and works in a factory stripping thorns of roses and preparing bouquets for export. Maria is beginning to resent the demands made on her by her employers, her families and even her boyfriend. Matters come to a head when a confrontation at work causes her to quit. There are few other options available, so the one offered by smooth-talking Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro) seems tempting…to be a drug mule.
Much has been said about the recent resurgence in Latin American cinema, and at first sight Maria Full of Grace, with its Colombian setting and Spanish dialogue, is part of that. So it’s a surprise to find that the writer-director, Joshua Marston, is actually a white American. That says a lot for how convincing this film is and for the quality of research that Marston must have done, that he has been able to “disappear” inside the film so thoroughly. Maria Full of Grace is a more modestly-scaled and personal, more low-key and less stylised treatment of the drugs problem than Traffic, say. But on the other hand it puts centre stage people that such films often forget about: the women who put their lives at risk by carrying heroin into the US in the form of rubber pellets in their stomachs.
Catalina Sandino Moreno was twenty-three when she played the role of Maria, her first screen acting role. She has won several awards for her performance, including an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. As she plays the character, Maria is less a victim than someone making hard and dangerous choices, but through them she sees the possibility of a new life. As she and the other mules board a flight to New York – the smugglers send several at once in the hope that at least some of them get through, with as many as sixty-two pellets in each one’s stomach – the film becomes very tense. Are the customs men on to them? And what happens if a pellet begins to leak?
Maria Full of Grace should be watched by anyone unaware of the human consequences of the international drug trade. And also by anyone interested in good filming with a commanding central performance.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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