Features Live Action Movies

Maria Full of Grace

Director – Joshua Marston – 2004 – US, Colombia – Cert. 15 – 101m

Reviewed for Third Way magazine to coincide with UK release date 25/03/2004.

Life’s options are limited for 17-year-old Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno). She would rather climb old ruined buildings in the open air than succumb to her parochially-minded boyfriend’s constant demands for sex, but that doesn’t stop him getting her pregnant. When he offers to marry her for no other reason than because that’s what you’re supposed to do; she dumps him. She hasn’t told anyone else about this yet. Warned she can’t use the lavatory on work time by the foreman at the rose-stripping factory where both she and her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) works, she quits. She’s also fed up with being asked to contribute money to support her sister’s baby. What’s a good Catholic, Columbian girl to do? She visits the church to pray about it.

Travelling to Bogotá ostensibly in pursuit of a possible lead on work as a maid, Maria runs into carefree, leather-jacketed Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro) and the word “mule”. Suckered in by his confidence and the promise of $5 000, she agrees to bodily transport Heroin pellets to the US despite the terrible stories she’s heard of people being arrested for the offence. She subsequently learns to her horror that Blanca too has signed on for the trip.

Shot largely in Spanish with minimal resources by Brooklyn-born, first time director Marston in a no‑nonsense, drama-doc style and bolstered no end by an unexpectedly transcendent performance by newcomer Moreno, this HBO production goes on to show the viewer exactly what its protagonist must go through as a drugs mule. She takes advice from seasoned mule Lucy (Guilied López) before undergoing the physical discomfort of swallowing more little rubber pellets containing the merchandise than she would have believed possible. Once these are inside her belly, she must lie down flat on a bed so that her employer can pat her stomach in all the right places to make the packages inside her line up properly. The loaded mules must then fight off the desire to go to the loo for the duration of a long haul flight. Should a package burst, that would be lethal for its carrier.

On the plane, things start to go wrong, with Lucy feeling decidedly unwell. On arrival in New York, one of the group of four mules is picked up by Customs. The remaining girls must stay with two unpleasant New Jersey gangster types while the pellets work their way through the system, but this proves too much for Maria, who escapes with the money – and Blanca in tow. Now her only remaining option is to find Carla (Patricia Rae), Lucy’s sister, who lives as a legal US immigrant in Queens. But what is Maria to tell her?

Never resorting to sensationalism, this is both a must-see film and a deeply disturbing experience. Writer-director Marston has researched his subject well and it shows. The viewer is simultaneously compelled and appalled by the mechanics of the physical demands made on a mule. Commendably, however, Marston’s camera never shirks from showing anything he needs us to see. For those of us living in the rich, democratic West, the tale plays out as an effective and salutary reminder as to just how lucky we are here – and to the lengths to which the desire to escape poverty for a better life will drive people. Who is to say that given the limited options of Maria’s position, we wouldn’t choose the exact same path?


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