Preview by: Jack Foley
WHAT constitutes a life of grace? Is it moral piety or exercising
goodwill? Or does it spring from acting from one’s heart
In attempting to address such issues, Joshua Marston’s
auspicious debut feature, Maria Full of Grace, became the talk
of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it subsequently
won the Audience Award for best dramatic film, not to mention
the Silver Bear Best Actress award, for its star, Catalina Sandino
Moreno, at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
The film also opened to rapturous acclaim in America, earlier
The film tells the story of the spirited and rebellious Maria
Alvarez, who lives with three generations of her family in a cramped
concrete house, in a rural town north of Bogotá.
For work, she strips thorns from flowers on a rose plantation,
but because her pay cheque supports the family, she is stuck -
until, that is, she meets Franklin, a stylish young man, who piques
her interest with talk of a cool job that involves travel.
The travel in question, however, involves Maria becoming a ‘mule’,
and she reluctantly agrees to swallow dozens of thumb-sized rubber
pellets, full of heroin ,and transport them to the United States
in a bid to escape.
According to the Sundance Film Festival website, ‘Catalina
Sandino Moreno gives an exceptional performance as a young woman
facing this crossroads with bravery, grit, and yes, grace’,
while Marston ‘demonstrates a fantastic eye for detail and
crafts a narrative with disarming rawness and authenticity’.
The director reportedly put the projects he was developing after
graduating from NYU on hold after reading one newspaper article
about Colombian drug mules.
"The fact is that it’s common practice to send a half-dozen
people on flights [smuggling drugs], knowing that one or more
of them will either die or get arrested," he explained.
Marston drafted a screenplay based on the topic, ‘and immediately
decided it didn’t work,’ he explains, ‘because
it was purely plot’.
However, rather than abandoning it
completely, he began a long process of rewrites that took him
to the MacDowell Colony and the Sundance Screenwriting Lab.
"I no longer describe this as a film about drug mules,"
he says. "It’s a film about a young girl, in Colombia,
who’s frustrated with her circumstances working at a flower
plantation, who makes a desperate attempt to escape from those
circumstances [by entering] into the world of drug smuggling.
"It’s a coming-of-age-story that’s brutal, realistic
and honest. It also deals with the current social and political
situation in Colombia, and the world of Colombian immigrants in
New York and what it’s like to come to a new country and
create a new life."
Given the topical subject matter, and the certain grim inevitability
hanging over Maria’s story, film critics in the States have
been lining up to heap praise on both director and star for delivering
such a compelling, and heart-breaking human tale.
Entertainment Weekly, for instance, awarded
it a maximum A rating and wrote that it ‘unfolds with a
simplicity that's as breathtaking as its inevitability is harrowing’.
While the Hollywood Reporter wrote that although
it’s ‘an inherently intense story, Maria is told with
a sympathetic eye’.
LA Weekly referred to it as ‘thrillingly
subjective’, and ‘teeming with the fullness of everyday
While the New York Times felt that it ‘sustains
a documentary authenticity that is as astonishing as it is offhand’.
Newsday referred to it as ‘one of the
more noteworthy debuts in recent filmmaking’, while Rolling
Stone told audiences to ‘remember the name Catalina
USA Today, meanwhile, felt it was ‘gracefully
acted, and the story packs a powerful punch straight to the gut’.
Variety felt that it ‘maintains an unblinking
focus and sustains an almost unbearable level of tension’.
And Village Voice found it to be ‘a remarkably
assured and humane feature debut’