Maria Full of Grace
aka Maria, Llena Eres de Gracia
Maria Full of Grace

English & Spanish language. USA/Colombia, 2004. Rated R. 101 minutes.

Cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae, Orlando Tobon, Jhon Alex Toro, Yenny Paola Vega, Wilson Guerrero, Johanna Andrea Mora, Jaime Osorio Gomez
Writer: Joshua Marston
Original Music: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman
Jim Denault
Producer: Paul S. Mezey
Director: Joshua Marston


Grade: A Review by Erika Hernandez

These pellets contain heroin. Each weighs 10 grams. Each is 4.2 cm long and 1.4 cm wide. And they're on their way to New York in the stomach of a 17-year-old girl.

A ll I knew about Maria Full of Grace before seeing it was this tagline. I thought I was in for a political thriller (i.e., The Dancer Upstairs), a heavy-handed “statement film” about our country's joke of a drug war (i.e., Traffic), or a fictionalized, 20/20-esque exposé about heroin trafficking and its poor, little victims.

I was so very wrong.

The superb debut of writer/director Joshua Marston, Maria Full of Grace's tagline speaks volumes about the film not just in premise, but in style. It is simple. It is fact-based. It is searing. It is remarkable.

This is the best film I have seen this year for many reasons, but mostly because its effect grows deeper every time I recall it, as does my respect for its director. It is written and shot in a realistic style, so the dialogue is minimal. No one makes any long and pretentious speeches about “class” or “struggle” or “drugs.” People just talk. It is shot in long takes, with a hand held camera. No freeze frames or slow motion; people just move. Nonetheless, the film is captivating. It is also sophisticated. Marston doesn't cheat you by sensationalizing his subject matter, and the result is a sensational piece of work.

Maria Full of Grace is Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno). She is a simple, pretty, and headstrong seventeen year old, living in a poverty-ridden town just north of Bogota, Colombia. Along with her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) she works in a flower plantation, where she strips the thorns off rose stems. (Her boss is a dictator who monitors every bathroom visit.) Like many in her town, she shares a home crammed with three generations of family—her mother, her sister, and her infant nephew. Maria's will, however, won't let her stay here for long. She does not have American posters on the wall or dream of becoming an artist. She merely knows there is more to life than this horrible lot.

Catalina Sandino Moreno
Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) contemplates the heroin pellets she must swallow in Maria Full of Grace.

Even when Maria discovers she is pregnant, she rejects the lame requisite proposal of her boyfriend, Juan (Wilson Guerrero). She quits her job, exasperated by its intolerable conditions, and has plans to seek work as a maid in Bogota. When she runs into young and smooth-talking Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), he offers her a proposition to make some fast money. She hears him out. (What else does she have going?)

Franklin's boss, Javier (Jaime Osorio Gomez) explains the job to Maria plainly. If she accepts it, Maria will become a “mule.” Javier will pay her $5,000 (a fortune in rural Colombia) to swallow 62 pellets of heroin and smuggle them from Bogota to New York. The risks include incarceration and even death, should one of the pellets break inside her system. She cannot eat before she ingests them. She must take a laxative once she arrives. After discussing the pros and cons with Lucy (Guilied Lopez), a young woman who has performed the task twice successfully, Maria takes the job.

Here is where Maria Full of Grace is most graceful. Marston opts for simply letting events unfold, as Maria prepares for her big trip. Silently, she stands in front of her bathroom mirror for over a minute, training her throat to accommodate the cargo. (She practices with large grapes.) The next day, she reports to Javier, who painstakingly prepares each pellet (a process I hadn't seen to this extent, ever). Once she is all packed, she boards a plane. Other mules are there, including Lucy and (much to Maria's dismay) Blanca.

Marston is great at evoking tension here, and does so through his choice of sound. Since you know EXACTLY what is in these women's systems, you feel the peril and are almost as anxious as they are. You are so invested in the outcome of this trip, your stomach is twisting. There is no music. When the plane revs up for takeoff, you look at Maria's face cringing. You think of the fetus inside her. You fear that because of the altitude, the pellets will explode. The engine's pitch increases. The plane's wheels retract. You literally hold your breath.

In the precarious profession of hauling drugs inside your body, some people die, others get caught, others return home with money, and others stay in the States illegally. In the movie, the fate of each mule reflects one of these real-life outcomes. By the end of Maria Full of Grace, you see that Marston does not demonize, romanticize, or trivialize his characters. He lets them be human.

Marston performed impressive research for Maria Full of Grace. He went to Colombia to interview members of drug-trafficking networks, prison officials, and inmates. In the States, he sought the accounts of immigrants who had once been mules, U.S. Customs agents, and surgeons who have extracted pellets from patients' bodies. Marston clearly respects film, and respects you the viewer, to work so hard to convey this level of detail and authenticity. Maria Full of Grace is the work of an artist, a journalist, an educator, and an anthropologist.

Do keep your eye out for Maria Full of Grace, in theater listings and on rental shelves. I will be keeping mine on Marston's next project.

Review © July 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Fine Line Features. All Rights Reserved.

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