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USA/Colombia 2004
Directed by
Joshua Marston
101 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Maria Full of Grace

Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) works for a pittance in a Colombian flower factory. She is a strong and outspoken young woman and after an altercation with her boss leaves her job. She then meets a young man who tempts her with a more lucrative position - to become a "drug mule", smuggling heroin inside her body into the USA. Her best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), signs up for a similar position and together the two embark on one of the riskiest undertakings of their young lives.

Maria Full of Grace is not so much a film about drug smuggling as it is about an independent-minded young woman, and the experience of poor Latino migrants in the USA. Maria is, in many regards, a typical 17-year-old, uncertain of her future but knowing she wants something more than menial factory labour and a boyfriend with more to offer than occasional sex.

It's easy to see why Moreno received a best actress nomination in this year's Oscars. She is a bright new talent with the ability to give a nuanced performance that showsthe contradictions and anomalies of Maria's character. So although we may not be in sympathy with some of her choices we understand her as a human being.

The Colombian migrant  experience is given extra breadth through the character of Carla, sister to Lucy, another drug mule. Carla has chosen to live in the USA for the sake of her future children and this sub-plot is highly effective in giving the sense of conflict and sadness created for people caught between their homeland and a better life.

The realistic and understated style of this film is a pleasure to watch, compared to the heavy-handed way Hollywood so often deals with such issue-based subject matter or even the relatively melodramatic treatment of a comparable story, Gregory Nava's El Norte (1983). The absence of mood-keying music is gratifying whilst a slow-burn sense of palpable fear builds, particularly thanks to fine camerawork by Jim Denault, as we accompany Maria, Blanca and Lucy on their quietly desperate and dangerous adventure.

The degradingly inhuman aspect of this trade is shown in all its mercenary and gory detail. The man who first instructs Maria on how to swallow the oil-coated, rubber-bound capsules is calmly paternal but makes it clear if anything goes missing it is the mules' families who will pay. The men who meet the girls at the other end are thugs who care nothing for human life - only the easy money of which the girls are no more than repositories.

With its gently humane take on a social issue, Maria Full of Grace is a beautifully-crafted  film that should definitely be seen by anyone in need of a cinematic reality check.




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