Full of Grace
Joshua Marston, USA, 2004
Posted: September 10,
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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