Maria, Full of Grace (United States/Colombia, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When applied to an animal, the term "mule" refers to a beast of burden - a slow, plodding, stupid creature whose sole asset is that it can transport large amounts of cargo without choice or complaint. When applied to a human being, the word means essentially the same thing, or at least that's the perception of those who employ the "mule." In the drug world, mules are used to carry the product into countries without being detected. Instead of being stashed in luggage or sewn into jacket linings, where they will likely be detected, the illegal substances are transported in the stomach of the mule. It's a dangerous business, but, for those who normally make poverty-level wages working long hours, the money is sometimes too great a lure.

Maria Full of Grace, the feature debut from Joshua Marston, tells the stories of three mules who travel from Colombia to New York with more than fifty pellets of cocaine in their bellies. It's a brilliant motion picture, not only because of the meticulous detail used in presenting the process from start to finish, but because of the clarity with which Marston develops the characters. The individuals populating Maria Full of Grace are three-dimensional, with understandable motives. They do not seem like constructs whose actions are determined by the needs of a screenplay. In dramatizing the situations depicted in the movie, Marston's approach is virtually flawless.

In a stunning performance, Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Maria, a 17-year old Colombian girl who quits her grueling job as a rose de-thorner after a run-in with an unsympathetic boss. For Maria's family, this is a harsh economic blow, because everyone living in the small house - including her mother, grandmother, and unmarried sister - relies in part on Maria's wages to survive. Worse still, Maria learns that she is pregnant, but refuses to marry her baby's father. In desperate need of money, Maria investigates an "employment opportunity" that requires her to act as a mule on the Colombia to New York run. She is accompanied on the trip by her best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), and Lucy (Guilied Lopez), a young woman making her third such journey.

When it comes to the nuts-and-bolts process of transporting the dope, no movie I have seen has done as thorough a job. (I would compare this to the first 30 minutes of Martin Scorsese's Casino, which presents a semi-documentary primer on casino operation.) We see how the pellets are manufactured, how the mules practice suppressing the gag reflex so they can swallow, how they are "fed" the drugs, what happens if they accidentally expel one before it is meant to be released, and the brutal consequences of a ruptured pellet.

The Colombian drug lord who employs Maria makes it sound like an easy way to make money, but it is shown to be anything but that. The process is grueling. Airport security is on the lookout for mules, and Maria's cover-story is too thin to pass muster. And the "hotel" in New York where she must deliver the goods is a seedy dive, and she's under the "care" of two thugs who will do whatever is necessary to retrieve the product. To them, she's no more important than any other container.

The motivations of the three women are explored. Maria, desperately unhappy with her current lot in life, wants an opportunity for herself and her unborn child. The United States is not a wonderland, but it offers better possibilities than Colombia. Blanca agrees to become a mule because she is bored, stubborn, and seduced by the money. And Lucy, whose story is the saddest, wants to be reunited with her sister, who lives in New York. On her two previous trips, she was unable to work up the courage to make contact. This may be her last opportunity.

By making the characters ordinary, Marston enhances the audience's ability to identify with them. Maria, Blanca, and Lucy are not in any way superhuman, nor are they endowed with amazing abilities. They are flawed, and make mistakes. When the pressure is on, they don't always do the right thing. We believe in Maria, and accept that, although she may not be real, there are others out there just like her who are.

The film's title (taken from the Catholic "Hail Mary" prayer) and poster imagery (a young woman receiving communion, with the wafer being replaced by a pellet) might lead a potential viewer to expect Maria Full of Grace to be overflowing with religious iconography. In fact, it isn't. Although there is an implied criticism of the hypocrisy inherent in a heavily religious society, this isn't something Marston dwells on. The movie is political, but there's an evenhandedness to its approach of the drug culture. Maria, Blanca, and Lucy are presented as victims, but not as unwilling innocents. Their plight is tragic, and there's little doubt that they have been preyed upon by avaricious men, but they enter into the contract with the Devil willingly. Like all who make such a pact, they are shocked when payment is exacted so quickly and ruthlessly.

Like many movies I have championed over the years, this one is disturbing. It is impossible to sit through Maria Full of Grace and not be affected by the circumstances of the characters. For that, the credit must go to Marston and his actors (especially Moreno, who, if she desires, could have an impressive career in front of the camera). The film's dramatic arc has genuine emotional impact, but there is never the slightest hint of manipulation on the part of the director. Yet, despite the dark nature of the material, Maria Full of Grace is not steeped in bleakness. The film ends not on a nihilistic note, but on one that could be considered hopeful. For those who appreciate serious dramas, this is one that should not be missed.

Maria, Full of Grace (United States/Colombia, 2004)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2004
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2004-07-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Spanis
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1