September 16, 2004

Maria Full of Grace

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Maria Full of Grace is a wonderful example of what happens when a University of Chicago graduate student in political science decides to forgo aspirations of academia and enroll in NYU’s film program. In his first sojourn as a feature-length writer and director, Joshua Marston (the aforementioned academic-turned-filmmaker) provides an intimate, yet almost academic account of one woman’s story of exploitation and opportunity within the underbelly of the drug trade. While the movie exists as a completely fictionalized account, it presents its story in such a matter-of-fact tone, that the film could pass as a documentary presented in an upper-level sociology course.

The film never leaves its protagonist Maria (played by the incredibly lovely Catalina Sandino Moreno) as she sets off on a comprehensive journey of the Western Hemisphere’s drug trafficking operations. After commencing in a dusty, mountain pueblo in rural Colombia where women are first solicited to become drug runners, or “mules,” the film follows Maria to the chaos of rapidly developing Bogota where the mules ingest an obscene amount of latex shells packed with drugs before embarking on a harrowing international flight, and culminates in the impoverished sprawl of urban New Jersey and the ethnic enclaves of polyglot Queens.

Avoiding a subject driven plot, Maria Full of Grace becomes a boiled down story about one girl’s voyage to America. And the resulting narrative provides the viewer with one of the most personal and confidential, yet level-handed accounts of what it is like to be a cog within the drug trade machine.

This is what the film excels at — its ability to provide a breathtaking, yet strictly unromanticized portrayal of one woman as she strives to achieve a better life for herself. None of the characters are treated with sympathy or malice under Marston’s direction (drug dealers, community leaders, mothers, and customs inspectors are all tacitly acknowledged to be simply carrying out their day to day lives, just as the protagonist is), and one would be hard pressed to find any elements of suspense or melodrama within the film. By successfully leaving out all but the character-driven emotion, Marston leaves the moral analysis inherent within such a subject to the viewers. In doing so, Marston’s film successfully evades the “liberal guilt trip” that often plagues this genre.

Motivating the inherently authentic feel of this film is the Colombian-born and raised Moreno, who absolutely shines in her acting debut. That Moreno is able to convey the restrained opportunism of a hopeful immigrant should not come as a surprise, as she first arrived in America for the filming of this movie.

Being an American film, one cannot help but to ask how Maria Full of Grace would have differed had it been conceived by a Colombian. Marston’s juxtaposition between the U.S. and Colombia is slight, and the film persistently focuses upon Maria’s sentiments. But the film succeeds in convincing us that this is Maria’s true conviction, and not the polemic of some freshman director obsessed with the concept of an American Dream.

4 1/2 Stars

Archived article by Matt Nagowski
Red Letter DAZE Staff Writer