Maria, Full of Grace

August, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Joshua Marston

Starring:Catalina Sandino Moreno and John Álex Toro

Maria, Full Of Grace

This independent film by newcomer Joshua Marston proves once again that major Hollywood studios don't always provide the best movies made in this country. Shot in the barrios of Columbia and the streets of New York City, this riveting look at a drug "mule" manages to frighten and instruct all at once, delivering one of the best examinations of the seedy, dehumanizing narcotics trade ever put on screen. Marston, who directed from his own script, proves himself someone to watch.

Working with a modest production budget, the director's story revolves around Maria, a 17-yr old Columbian girl who works in a wholesale flower factory. In the course of a few eventful days, she (1) learns she's pregnant, (2) angrily quits her job in reaction to her employer's callous treatment of her morning sickness, (3) rejects an obviously reluctant proposal from her boyfriend, (4) goes to Bogotá to find work and (5) gets enlisted to carry heroin into the U. S. 

There have been a number of successful movies about criminal behavior that derive both tension and momentum from a careful examination of the mechanics involved in crime, and Marston utilizes that approach here with a straightforward yet seductive effectiveness. From her initial flirtation with a recruiter, to the first contact with the supplier through the harrowing process of watching white narcotic powder forced into thumb-sized, latex wrapped pellets, the audience learns exactly what Maria is getting into at exactly the same time she does. As the drug dealer strokes her throat to coax each potentially lethal time-bomb down her esophagus like a farmer force feeding a duck destined to wind up as pate, the sheer matter-of-factness which envelops the entire process generates a combination of lurid fascination and impending doom. Despite assurances from a veteran courier that the risks are worth it, Maria packs for her trip with grim passivity.

Clutching her first airline ticket, a few hundred dollars in cash and a phony address in New York, Maria boards a plane with three other young women as burdened with poison as she is; the movie then follows each of them through the grisly game of Russian Roulette into which they've been drawn.

The director doesn't sensationalize or victimize; Maria and her companions occupy tenuous positions in their own society, but they are not without alternatives to the paths they've chosen. But what chance do those other choices offer in fulfilling the aspirations for a better life? Without patronizing the conditions that lead Maria to take risks disproportionate to the rewards she's been promised, Marston establishes the connection between poverty and crime with powerfully understated effectiveness; despite the hazards involved, lives already marginalized in the third world will be destroyed in order to insure that the appetites of American addicts can be continuously satisfied.

Without utilizing unnecessary violence to sensationalize his material, Marston creates a nightmarish world in which traffickers regard their gofers like pawns on a chessboard and it's their pervasive, total indifference that's most shocking; these are soulless thugs who terrify precisely because they're capable of anything. Working with an eerily credible cast made up of non-actors drawn from the locations in which the story's action takes place and featuring a luminous debut performance by Catalina Moreno as Maria, the director provides, (along with its furiously ironic title) a terse, compelling drama which offers audiences much uncomfortable food for thought. One can only hope he'll find more such opportunities to disturb us in his next effort. 

 

 

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