With only one short film to his credit, writer-director Joshua Marston appears on the movie scene with a credible, well-intentioned and largely successful debut feature — thanks in no small part to another newcomer, Catalina Sandino Moreno, in the title role.
Moreno hits just the right note as Maria. This is essential to the film, since Marston’s screenplay is often shy on motivation and character history, which is odd considering his attention to detail — sometimes too much of it — evidenced in other areas of the film.
For example, there’s far too much time spent on setting up Maria’s nonrelationship with the father (Wilson Guerrero) of her child. The fact that she’s become pregnant by a man she doesn’t love and who doesn’t love her isn’t much more than a plot device, and it would have been time better spent filling us in on why anyone as spunky, clear-headed and resourceful as Maria has been sticking it out in a dead-end job at a long-stemmed-rose sweatshop in a small Colombian town. In more realistic terms, the character seems to be someone who would have already made plans to strike out on her own and attempt to better her lot in nearby Bogota.
But Marston would have no story if that had been the case, and for all the movie’s originality and indie-film bravado, it often operates on what can only be called “movie logic.” In other words, some things happen only because they further the story.
This flaw is somewhat sidestepped by the fact that the story itself does something unusual: It takes the viewer somewhere new. Sure, we’ve all heard about people who smuggle drugs into the United States by swallowing them in “safe” encapsulated form, but I doubt that many of us have ever given the logistics of the procedure much thought, or wondered too deeply about the lives and motivations of the couriers. Maria Full of Grace takes us as deeply into that world as we’re ever likely to go — or perhaps want to go.
After quitting her job — after her boss pointlessly makes her wash off a bunch of ruined roses she’s vomited on due to morning sickness — Maria falls in with Franklin (John Alex Toro), who takes her to Bogota and hooks her up with a drug lord (Jaime Osorio Gomez), who takes her on as a “mule.” The promise of making $5,000 and getting out of her dreary existence overrides any qualms she might have about the risks or legalities involved, but it doesn’t blind her to them, and she’s properly outraged when her friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), also accepts a job as a “mule.”
The process of packaging and swallowing the drugs is very detailed and disturbing — though it pales in comparison to a later sequence when Maria has to force herself to swallow some of them a second time, thanks to the natural process of the digestive system. Of course, the real risk in all this — other than being caught — lies in the possibility that one of the containers might break open in transit, causing the death of the “mule.”
Such, in fact, is the fate of another courier, Lucy (Guilied Lopez), in one of the film’s other grim scenes. Unfortunately, Marston’s script takes a slightly hard-to-believe turn at this point when Maria witnesses the matter-of-fact manner in which the dealers handle the situation. The scene fails to up the ante of Maria’s peril.
In fact, the latter sections of the film veer a little too much toward melodrama and a Hollywoodized tying up of loose ends to have quite the same power as the more dispassionate approach Marston takes in the first two-thirds of the story. This is never so off-key as to undermine the film’s accomplishments — and Moreno’s performance keeps it more grounded than it has any right to be on its merits — but the latter part of the film definitely falls short of the promise of the earlier parts.
In some ways, it seems that Marston — a professed admirer of the realism of British filmmakers Ken Loach and Mike Leigh — is trying so hard for realism that he misses the mark. It’s done in the name of realism, yes, but there’s a certain sense of stunt filmmaking in having written an entire script written in English and then translated and performed in Spanish. I’m not at all sure that the film would have suffered without this approach, though it does nicely convey the sense of Marston the filmmaker as an outsider looking in on events that he might not wholly understand.
Whatever its flaws, Maria Full of Grace is a daunting debut work well worth catching.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke