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Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria
Yenny Paola Vega as Blanca
Guilied Lopez as Lucy
Patricia Rae as Carla
Orlando Tobon as Don Fernando
John Álex Toro as Franklin
After getting pregnant and quitting her menial job, Colombian teen Maria Alvarez gets involved in drug trafficking to help get money for her family. Despite the risks involved, she becomes a "mule", swallowing 62 pellets filled with cocaine to smuggle them into the United States, but on arriving in New York, things begin to go wrong, forcing Maria and her friend Blanca on the run with nowhere else to go.
For the last few years, the films that have made the most lasting mark on movie audiences are those that showed real people in real life situations, often showing a different lifestyle than most Americans were accustomed. Movies like last year's Whale Rider and Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien, both smaller budget films with no big name stars, are good examples of this.
With that in mind, Joshua Marston's feature film debut Maria Full of Grace is an amazing achievement, because it creates fiction as real as life. While living in a section of Brooklyn with many Colombian émigrés, Marston learned about the drug mules-young women used to transport drugs inside their bodies-and with extensive research, he created this fictional story that shows the tragic story of the drug mules. The risks these women take in order to make a better living for themselves makes the story so interesting. If they're not caught by customs while entering the country, they have to worry about the very real and lethal dangers of a cocaine pellet breaking open inside their stomach.
Into this environment, Marston introduces Maria, a rebellious teen who tries to do what is best for herself and her family. The film starts slow, showing Maria's mundane life working at a flower plant to earn a meager living to support her mother, her sister and her sister's baby. When she learns she's pregnant, she becomes involved with an unscrupulous guy who convinces her to run drugs. From there, things quickly pick up.
Catalina Moreno's performance as Maria is nothing short of amazing. It's what drives the movie, making you feel empathy for her character and situation. You never know what is going to happen to her next, but you can relate to her fears without her ever uttering a word. The tension is evident throughout her journey from her first airplane flight to arriving in customs and later, trying to figure out where she'll go after running away. You can only imagine what goes through her mind as she is fed each drug-filled capsule by the fatherly drug kingpin Javier, a nail-biting sequence made even more daunting due to her pregnancy.
That said, Maria is an extremely strong willed young woman, whose tremendous resolve allows her to get through these tough situations, although her overwhelming pride tends to be her undoing, becoming as much a catalyst for her problems. The film's big turning point comes in the form of Don Fernando, a kindly local "godfather", who helps those in need in the community. Played by real life Queens community leader Orlando Tobon, who was the inspiration for the role, he adds the required empathy and caring to the part that he must have in real life to deal with these situations. The evolution of Maria's relationship with her best friend Blanca, played by another newcomer, also changes over the course of the movie as they go through the drug transport system.
Maria Full of Grace is much more than just an expose on drug trafficking and how it affects one young woman. It's also a fairly accurate representation of the immigrant experience, handled even more credibly than Stephen Frears' 2003 thriller Dirty Pretty Things. Maria's pregnancy and her decision to risk the life of her unborn baby in order to earn money to support her family is also handled well, making the viewer more empathic with her situation.
Everything about the movie is handled in a believable way from Maria's family life to the people she meets on her journey. Of course, due to the realism, there are few scenes a bit hard to watch, but everything is handled very tastefully. Marston's decision to work outside of his element by telling Maria's story in her native tongue makes the movie even more challenging, and the Spanish dialogue maintains the movie's credibility. Like the best foreign films, the words are so well written that you not only forget you're reading subtitles, but you also forget that you're watching a movie.
The Bottom Line:
Joshua Marston's touching and powerful film may be one of the year's most original and unexpected coming-of-age films, a tragic and very real story of how the poverty of living in a third world country drives a young woman to do things she never imagined. Like Whale Rider, the memorable performance by a first-time actress, in this case Moreno, makes this a breakout film. Maria Full of Grace well deserves its inevitable placement in this year's Top 10 lists, but it also demands to be seen, since it shows a way of life that few people will know exists before seeing it.