Reviewed by Brian Ludovico (January 18, 2005)
Maria Full of Grace’s title character, Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno), is a smart, bold, strong and beautiful seventeen year old girl who lives a run-of-the-mill life in rural Colombia. As a seventeen year old, she’s shouldering the responsibility of providing for everyone in her tiny home, namely her mother, her grandmother, her older sister and her nephew. It’s not easy to do on the salary she earns as one of the countless faces working in a flower factory. It’s basically a sweatshop where she dethorns roses and packs them for shipment.
Life isn’t horrible for Maria, in spite of being beset by the breadwinner burden at such a young age. Certainly, she dreams of a better life, but she doesn’t lament the one she lives. At least she works with her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), and her job leaves her with enough money for the occasional night out with her boyfriend.
When life delivers a little surprise in the way of a pregnancy, Maria and her considerably less mature boyfriend argue about their options. Rather than get married, as Julio suggests, Maria ends their relationship. Soon after, Maria starts to feel the effects of her pregnancy. Her morning sickness is costing her money, as she gets paid by the parcel at the factory, and her boss is getting aggravated by her repeated absences from her station. When he refuses to excuse her for her third trip that morning, Maria vomits on a bunch of roses. Her boss takes her to task, though not in some tyrannical and ridiculous way, but sternly and realistically. Maria is smart, but she’s also young and prideful, so she decides to quit the flower shop.
In spite of tremendous family pressure to swallow her pride and return to the factory before her job is snapped up by one of the legions of unemployed folks in the area, Maria flatly refuses to do so. Instead, she’s going to take a bus trip to Bogotá, where she’ll look for work as a maid or some other common labor job. On her way, she sees a young man she recognized from a party a while back. This young man is going to change Maria’s life forever: he offers her a chance to work as a mule, transporting drugs in her body to the United States. He takes her to a local drug kingpin who gives her the details. For every 14 ounce pellet she swallows and successfully deliver, she’ll be paid $100. In a country where the average family income is less than $2000 per year, this is a significant opportunity. If she succeeds, her family will be financially fine. If she fails, though, her family will likely be killed.
Maria decides that for her family and for herself, she must take the chance. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Maria goes to a shady back room at a Bogotá pharmacy and watches the pellets she’s to swallow being made before her. When done, they’re about the size of ten gauge shotgun shell. Maria manages to swallow a whopping 62 pellets – which means that successful delivery would produce $6200 for the Alvarez family - and boards a plane bound for JFK International. As she boards, she notices not only her friend Blanca – who now works as a mule - but also a woman she met at the kingpin’s location, Lucy (Guilied Lopez), a mule with a lot of experience.
While they’re up in the air, things immediately prove to be more difficult than she’d hoped. Maria has to go to the bathroom, but can’t because she’ll lose some of the pellets if she isn’t careful. If a single gram of drugs isn’t delivered to the destination, her family will be in mortal danger. Her only solution is to go to the bathroom, extract the expelled pellets, wash them off and re-ingest them. What’s worse, Lucy starts to look and act ill and nervous. Lucy is starting to sweat, and getting very pale, and the more she gets up, fidgets and shows symptoms, the more eyebrows she’s going to raise. Flight attendants can get suspicious, and notify the DEA or Customs who to watch for.
When they get off the plane, Maria’s problems get worse: customs detains her and starts to interview her, suspicious of the purpose of her trip, and getting more so with each passing question. They ask her to submit to an X-ray to prove that she’s not carrying drugs. When they check her urine sample, they find that she’s pregnant, and therefore cannot perform the procedure. Seeing as they already caught one of the mules on board the plane, a fourth woman who was “triple packed,” the two of them decide to let Maria go. She’s immediately snapped up by the contacts outside.
They whisk her off to a hotel room in Jersey, where the five of them, three mules and two transporters, will stay until each and every balloon is accounted for. It’s a matter of days as the pellets start to leave the systems of Lucy, Blanca and Maria. Lucy’s condition continues to worsen until one morning, when Maria wakes up and sees the two men carrying out a limp body, rolled in a blanket. Maria is worried for Lucy, with whom she’d established the beginning of a friendship, when she walks into the bathroom to see what happened. She finds the bathtub and tile smeared with blood, and she’s understandably terrified. She takes her friend and all of the drugs in a suitcase and splits. Unfortunately, they light out into a country where they don’t speak the language, they’re carrying enough cocaine to put them both in jail forever, and they’re likely to be pursued by a couple of thugs who only want their goods.
Maria decides that her only sliver of hope is to visit with Lucy’s sister Carla (Patricia Rae), who lives in New York with her husband. Maria tells Carla that she’s a friend of Lucy’s, and Carla kindly takes in this young, lonely immigrant. She even brings her and Blanca to a community figure, Don Fernando, who will help them get a job. They explain the Lucy situation to Don Fernando, who pulls some strings and verifies that the woman’s body was found. It’s up to Maria to tell Carla, but once she finds out, it’s likely that she and Blanca will both end up on the street, with one less friend and even angrier drug dealers looking for them. Maria wants to figure out how to get everything fixed and get back to her family as soon as possible. It’s an awful lot for a seventeen year old to handle.
In spite of my lengthy summation, Maria Full of Grace is a fairly simple three act story. When I put it in, I was expecting a far more graphic, brutal and somewhat heavy handed morality play movie, at best a Spanish-language take on Requiem for a Dream, at worst a Telelmundo After-School Special. I was extremely glad to be wrong.
Maria Full of Grace is unique for a movie that is driven largely by drug trafficking in that it doesn’t force a single judgment on its subject matter. It’s an entirely unsentimental and unblinking look at a young woman, not a completely naïve girl, thinking her decision through and making a choice, not for money, not for glory, not for herself, but because if she can accomplish the task, it makes her life easier for her and her family. In her situation, Maria didn’t see that she had any other viable solution.
One of the things that really impresses me about Maria Full of Grace is the portrayal of its female characters: Maria, Blanca, and Carla. Moreno’s performance is on an absolute different plane as Maria, but all three are powerfully acted and fantastically written. Blanca’s an all-business type of girl, fighting Maria to get the job done and go back to Colombia with their money. She is brave enough to try to strike out on her own when she disagrees with Maria’s plan, even though she knows fewer people in America than Maria.
Carla is even more fascinating. Rae’s textured performance is electrifying in spots, particularly the juxtaposition of the scene where she tells Maria about her first days in America against the rage she exhibits the following day. It’s rare to find truly strong, solid and feminine female roles in movies nowadays, and this one has three.
Marston’s direction deserves as much credit as his script for the way the Maria Full of Grace turned out. This movie wouldn’t have been nearly as moving if it had felt, even for a moment, like the drug trade was the center of the film. Marston makes it more about Maria than about the perils or moral dilemmas of transporting drugs, and as a result, the audience never sees Maria as the “drug trafficker.” We see her as the person she is, and the movie is more successful for it. Martson’s other big victory is choosing to film his American-financed film entirely in Spanish, something that couldn’t have been an easy sell to studios. The film would have failed miserably any other way. As it is, Maria Full of Grace is a rousing success and a film not to be passed up.