Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 28 2004
Maria Full of Grace
Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno. Written and directed by Joshua Marston. Rated R.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Tráfico

A new star shines in the overhyped but worthy Maria Full of Grace.

By KRISTIAN LIN

Colombian theater student Catalina Sandino Moreno not only scores her first movie role in Maria Full of Grace but is in almost every scene. It’s not that flashy a part for a starring role, but she brings a great deal of intelligence to it, and she’s quite good at portraying a girl whose willfulness is temporarily held in check by the experience of being in a strange country. Hers is the most striking debut by an actor since Keisha Castle-Hughes’ in last year’s Whale Rider, and while her performance here doesn’t exactly herald the coming of cinema’s newest megastar, it’s enough to generate interest in what she does next.

The same qualified praise could be offered up for the rest of the movie. Maria Alvarez is a stubborn 17-year-old girl growing up in a small Colombian village that offers few opportunities either for employment or entertainment. Unappreciated at home, out of work after a spat with her boss, and pregnant by a boy (Wilson Guerrero) with even fewer prospects than she has, Maria goes to Bogotá to look for a job. Thanks to Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), a kid with a motorcycle and a brash attitude, she winds up as a drug mule, smuggling pellets of cocaine inside her body into the United States.

How easily she slips into this life is worth noting. Maria’s circumstances are hard but not desperate, and she’s seduced by the prospect of easy money and the chance to see life beyond her small town. First-time writer-director Joshua Marston uses the character to view the drug trade from the ground level, while following Maria through the process of becoming a mule. The movie’s most talked-about sequence is one in which she swallows the pellets before going to the airport, and it’s the little details (like the pharmacist cutting up a rubber glove to encase the drugs) that give the scene its queasy power.

There are better things to come. Maria’s first job puts her on a plane, where she spots three other women she knows working as mules. (“If one of us gets stopped, it’s easier for the others to get through,” she’s told.) The smuggling operation slowly unravels beneath the notice of the other passengers, as one of her co-workers starts to feel ill effects, and the sequence slowly unfolds with sweaty intensity. Maria accidentally drops two of the pellets while on the toilet, then realizes she has to swallow them again. It’s followed by another tense bit in which she’s stopped by suspicious U.S. Customs agents and has to lie her way through an interrogation.

These sequences pack some visceral effect, but the film loses steam soon afterwards, when Maria reaches New York. Marston, who’s clearly heavily influenced by John Sayles’ working-class humanism, captures the milieu well and commits to taking a three-dimensional view of all his characters. Yet it still feels like a well-written newspaper feature rather than a movie, scrupulous rather than thrilling (rather like many of Sayles’ mid-level efforts). It’s regrettable that Maria Full of Grace, which garnered major prizes at Sundance and Berlin, has been overhyped on the indie film circuit. Nevertheless, if you go in with tempered expectations, you’ll find an honest, smart little movie with a bright lead performance. That’s worth a look any time. l


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