Review by: Jack Foley | Rating:
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director's commentary. Interview
with director Joshua Martson and star Catalina Sandino Moreno.
WHAT would make someone become a drug mule? And can their actions
ever be sympathised with?
It's a valid question and the answer makes for compelling and
emotive viewing in Maria Full of Grace, a frank and uncompromising
insight into the drug trade.
Written and directed by Joshua Marston, the film is a work of
fiction inspired by extensive research of the subject which frequently
feels as though it could be a fly-on-the-wall documentary.
It rightly won the Audience Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival
and earned its star, Catalina Sandino Moreno, an Oscar nomination
in the best actress category at this year's showpiece ceremony.
Moreno stars as Maria Alvarez, a Colombian rose-worker who reluctantly
agrees to carry drugs to New York in exchange for the money that
might give her a better chance in life.
Yet while the decision is undoubtedly foolhardy because of the
risks involved, it is easy to see why Maria comes to it.
Pregnant and treated like a slave by her ignorant bosses, she
is also forced to burden the financial responsibility for her
family, including her older sister, Diana (Johanna Andrea Mora),
who uses Maria's pay cheque to provide for her own baby.
Her relationship, too, is a loveless affair, so that when she
meets the self-assured Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro) and is offered
the chance of a new existence, she tentatively agrees to serve
as a mule for a drug run to America, especially since it pays
$5,000 for just the one trip.
What follows is a tense and occasionally
harrowing affair, as Maria trains herself to swallow the drug
parcels and then embarks on the trip to New York, enlisting the
help of her best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), and a drug
mule veteran, Lucy (Jaime Osorio Gomez), into the bargain.
Needless to say, not everything goes as planned and Maria is
forced to make some difficult choices when she arrives in the
Big Apple, while confronting the true horror of her predicament
through the misfortune of her new friend, Lucy.
What makes Maria Full of Grace such a compelling experience is
the authenticity of proceedings - from the attention to detail
of the drugs trade itself, to the honest performances of just
about all involved.
Marston may be an American, but his knowledge of Colombian politics
and lifestyle is extensive and a tribute to the very thorough
research he carried out before shooting.
He regularly heard from Colombian immigrants about the lives
they had left behind and frequently spoke to imprisoned drug mules
and Customs officials at Kennedy Airport in a bid to remain true
to his subject.
Indeed, his research led him to Orlando Tobon, a respected leader
in the Colombian community who has worked on behalf of drug mules
and their families since 1980, and who appears in the film as
a kindly New York store owner who befriends and helps Maria to
overcome her difficulties.
Impressive, too, is the central performance of Moreno, whose
candid depiction of Maria provides audiences with a character
they can genuinely root for no matter how they may view her decision.
It is an unfussy, under-stated portrayal of a spirited and rebellious
individual who is not prepared to play out the cards life has
As such, it feels very human so that the situations she finds
herself in appear real and frightening - unlike some of the contrived
situations of a Hollywood blockbuster.
It is a measure of both Moreno and Marston's success, therefore,
that viewers may think twice before rushing to snap judgments
about the people affected by the drug trade in Colombia. In real
life, nothing is ever as clean cut as it seems.