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Maria Full of Grace (15)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

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 dealt her.

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.

 

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