August 2004
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Personal Life of a Drug Mule Revealed in Stunning 'Maria Full of Grace'

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Personal Life of a Drug Mule Revealed in Stunning 'Maria Full of Grace'
by Jeremy Mathews

“Maria Full of Grace”
Fine Line Features/HBO Films
Written and directed by Joshua Marston
Produced by Paul Mezey
Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied López, John Alex Toro, Patricia Rae and Orlando Tobón
In English and Spanish (with English subtitles)
Rated R

(out of four)

Joshua Marston’s “Maria Full of Grace” explores the drug industry not through the eyes of drug lords, crooked businessmen or violent hoods, but as it reveals itself to a young Colombian woman who has so few options that becoming a “mule” seems to be a sound decision. This is a film that doesn’t just look at the industry, but the society that allows it to thrive and leads girls to carry heroin in their stomachs.

American director Marston made the wise decision to shoot the film in Spanish with a Colombian crew, and cast young actress Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria, a 17-year-old Colombian who finds herself in the drug smuggling industry. In her film debut, Moreno offers a brilliant portrayal of a woman who has to make her own decisions about what direction to take her life.

Marston creates a beautiful, neo-realism-inspired look throughout the film, opening with a frank slice-of-life sequence depicting Maria’s living conditions. She resides in a cramped multigenerational house where what little money she makes in a horrible job stripping thorns from roses is expected to go directly to the family. Meanwhile, she’s just told her boyfriend that she’s pregnant, but isn’t impressed with his offer of marriage—he doesn’t love her, so they couldn’t have a very good life together.

After she rebels and quits her job, she meets Franklin (John Alex Toro), a motorcycle-riding man with money who introduces Maria to options that will make her money and let her go to New York City. The older man in charge of the smuggling is almost fatherly in his kindness and offering of money, but there’s also the sense that he wouldn’t hesitate to severely punish her if anything goes wrong.

She must swallow more than 60 one-and-a-half by three-quarter inch rubber pellets encasing heroin and carry them in her stomach on a plane and through customs in New York City. If she has to go to the bathroom, she has to re-swallow what comes out and deliver every pellet—without one missing—to the recipients in New York.

Swallowing those pellets is quite an endeavor, and Marston captures the long, uncomfortable experience that the mules go through, first learning to swallow grapes. If any pellets break, it means death through overdose, but the mules, like Lucy (Guilied López), Maria’s new friend who has done it twice, still do it. Before leaving, Lucy walks Maria through the process and the dangers—she needs to continue to do it to earn money. This job isn’t going to set anyone up for life, and the illusion to this fact falls apart quickly.

Marston’s honesty with the subject matter demands that the characters have real motives and real feelings. He refuses to demonize any characters, but represents them as they would act in their situations. Like the nice but threatening boss in Columbia, the thugs who pick up the drugs in New York are familiar and bored with their jobs, but also have to be violent or threatening if it's required of them. No characters are perfect, but none are pure evil. Whether or not she’s making wise decisions, Maria’s motives are always clear and her complex thoughts laid out through Moreno’s performance.

So Maria and some of her colleagues end up on an airplane to New York City in one of the most stunning scenes of the year. The scene is a claustrophobic nightmare of real problems and paranoia. While most of the people sleep, the mules, who aren’t supposed to make contact with one another, exchange recognizable glances and Maria deals with some unexpected problems and witnesses more among her friends. Marston uses the dimly lit plane as a sort of purgatory, where the girls have no escape from the law or medical problems if something goes wrong, physically or mentally.

In New York City, Marston’s casting again recalls neo-realism some more. Orlando Tobón—a Colombian émigré who owns a travel agency in Queens, where he helps Colombian immigrants find their place and helps repatriate the bodies of drug mules who didn’t make it—plays a warm character very much based on himself. As Don Fernando, he brings warmth and hope to Maria’s story and is one of several people who demonstrate some of the positive contributions of Colombian Americans.

On the other side of the customs office, the film continues with unexpected turns as Maria arrives in New York City and desperately tries to find the right way to handle her situation. Marston never flinches in his realistic portrait of his character’s lives, never inserts unnecessary action or contrived plot points. “Maria Full of Grace” demands that the audience not just look at a social problem that destroys many lives, but understand the people involved.

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