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Grace Under Pressure


Maria Full of Grace

Joshua Marston, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.8



Posted: September 10, 2004

By Laurence Station

So, you wanna be a drug mule? Maria Full of Grace, writer/director Joshua Marston’s involving feature film debut, reveals in intimate detail exactly what’s required in taking on such work. You see how (typically desperate and naive) people are recruited into the business, how the narcotics are packaged and ingested into their systems, learn what the prospective mules should expect if customs agents stop them, and then witness the decidedly unglamorous delivery method at journey’s end. It’s not pleasant, but, hey, the money’s great and it does afford you a chance to see the world.

Marston conveys an authentic sense of people, place, and mule-trade specificities that provides a voyeuristically fascinating (“So, that’s how it’s done!") detour from the 9-5 norm. Unnecessary plot elements prevent Maria from being a totally blessed cinematic experience, but it’s nonetheless a potent coming-of-age tale, combined with a documentary-style exploration of the manifestly crude, gastro-intestinally-challenging drug smuggling process.

Our drug mule applicant is Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a seventeen-year-old living outside Bogotá, Colombia. Maria lives with her mother, grandmother and older sister (the latter with an infant son). Maria works as a thorn remover at a flower plantation; she’s also suffering from morning sickness and quickly deduces she’s pregnant. (Maria and her boyfriend mutually agree that there’s no point in getting married since they don’t love one another.) After impulsively quitting her job (the floor boss is stingy with the bathroom breaks), Maria heads to Bogotá seeking work. A chance encounter with a man connected to the drug trade leads to an offer for Maria to become a mule, which ultimately leads to the pregnant teen ferrying a bellyful of carefully wrapped heroin pellets to New York.

A veteran mule (of all of two trips) named Lucy (Guilied Lopez) educates Maria on the basics of swallowing balloon-filled bags of dope (they practice using grapes) and gravely warns her about what happens should any break (you die). Maria, all stoic resolve and wide-eyed studiousness, gets up to speed quickly. The contrivance of having Maria’s friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), sign on to be a mule completes our trinity of extremely vulnerable risk takers.

Maria Full of Grace falters once Maria and her fellow smugglers head to America and attempt to deliver the goods. Not wholly unexpected tragedy strikes, and panic ensues. Marston’s grip on the narrative rudder weakens as Maria finds herself adrift, the emblematic stranger in a strange land. The presence of Blanca unnecessarily complicates matters here; she comes across more as a tagalong than a confidante -- like the little sister Maria couldn’t get out of watching while on vacation. If Blanca had more to offer, or was better developed (her reason for smuggling is pragmatic enough: she wants to buy a home for her parents), then her usefulness to the story might have been better justified. But she’s mostly there to complain and pester Maria without offering anything substantial in return -- a true albatross around the lead character’s neck.

Moreno’s performance, in her film debut, is the film's most memorable aspect. She brings a unique quietude to the role, especially given her character’s circumstances -- a stubborn self-reliance that's believable and assured. Kudos to Marston, as well, whose direction is intimate and grounded. He never stoops to melodrama and doesn’t get too fancy or try to make some obvious (not to mention meaningless) statement regarding the dangers of the drug trade. He also wisely keeps the focus squarely on his main character and, despite some peripheral distractions that weigh the film down, Maria succeeds for that very reason.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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