Maria Full of Grace

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/07/04 00:34:36

"Simple, honest, depressing as hell. Packs a wallop."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

One of the strange discoveries about “Maria Full of Grace” is that it’s so detailed and heartfelt in its portrait of a Colombian teenager who gets mixed up in the drug trade that you’d never expect it would come from some big haired white guy. And yet this big haired white guy, an American newcomer named Joshua Marston, must know something about sweatshops and cocaine smuggling and South American angst. Angst is universal, sure, but this tale is impressively specific.

It’s also impressively depressing, if you’ll allow me the phrase. Here is a story in which nothing good comes of anything, and all we can do is to watch, to be moved by the fact that this sort of tragedy happens pretty much every day, somewhere. Since that somewhere is a place we’re usually not looking, here’s a good chance to have our eyes opened just a little more.

Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Maria, a spunky seventeen-year-old who’s fed up with the lousy treatment she receives in her hell job of prepping roses. She quits, only to catch hell from her family - why couldn’t she just keep quiet and earn that payday, they complain. Worse, she’s pregnant, by a boy she doesn’t love; she’s wise enough to know that his trying-to-be-honorable notion of marriage is one that wouldn’t work out.

Her wisdom gets clouded, however, once a new job offer comes along, one promising big money. The work is that of a “mule,” one who swallows impossibly large pellets filled with drugs, flies into New York, gets picked up by a couple of strangers, then waits it out in a motel room until the product works its way out the other end.

That this is a real job reflects badly on us as a species, to be sure. And the sad truth is that when people get into economic straits, jobs like this become sadly appealing - a little risk for a lot of cash. Mercifully, Marston manages to give us a Message Movie without having to beat us over the head with any actual message. Simply showing us the chain from poverty to seedy motel and beyond is enough to drive the point home. Less is more, and by keeping his distance, by showing us Maria’s visit to the States without additional comment or unneeded melodrama, the story’s impact hits us harder.

Just as the film is remarkable in its delicate nature, it’s also a wonder in its portait of ordinary people. Marston filled his cast with newcomers and, more importantly, amateurs. The lack of star power keeps this film from feeling like a “movie,” while the usage of non-actors (most notably Orlando Tobin, who essentially plays himself, a Queens businessman who helps Colombians in need) adds that extra touch of realism. There are times “Maria” feels like a documentary, the characters seen here are that convincing.

Like “Bread and Roses” and “El Norte” (only two of many such titles that come to mind), “Maria” exists to shine a light on a corner of society we try our best to ignore. It makes a touching, terrifying statement while all the while refusing to get anywhere close to preachiness. And yet the film works also simply as quality storytelling; ignore the societal commentary, and you’re still left with the heartbreaking yarn of a young girl whose one decision betrays her intelligence. Moreno gives in her first film role a performance as assured as any pro, and watching her in action, it becomes effortless to root for her Maria to regain her wits.

In other words, don’t let the downer story material keep you away. This is fascinating work, something you surely don’t want to miss.

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