Looking beyond the sensationalized accounts of heroin trafficking to present one of the human stories beneath the surface, “Maria Full of Grace” focuses on a 17-year-old girl from rural Colombia, who drifts into an assignment as a drug mule. Writer-director Joshua Marston’s strikingly confident debut maintains an unblinking focus and sustains an almost unbearable level of tension. Despite the challenges of marketing a Spanish-language feature on a harsh subject, critical attention should elevate this arresting drama into the prime specialized arena, with women likely to be especially responsive.
Coming from the same strand of HBO Films that hatched “Real Women Have Curves,” “American Splendor” and “Elephant,” Marston’s skillfully executed film continues the cable net’s impressive track record of developing boldly original low-budget features designed to play theatrically prior to broadcast. While no announcement was made before its Sundance premiere, “Maria” appears poised to be the next title channeled through the HBO/Fine Line distribution pact.
Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a quietly rebellious girl working a tedious job trimming stems in a rose plantation. Stuck in an uninspiring relationship with her loser boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero), she is chained to her thankless job by a family that depends on her paycheck. However, micro-management from her supervisor prompts her suddenly to quit. At the same time she realizes she’s pregnant.
Refusing to beg for her job back or to marry Juan, Maria goes to Bogota to look for work as a maid. On the way, she meets Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), an acquaintance who seduces her with talk of the easy money to be made as a mule, transporting drugs to the U.S. Franklin hooks her up with Javier (Jaime Osorio Gomez), a supplier who gives her a cash advance and explains what’s required, downplaying the risk of arrest. She also meets Lucy (Giulied Lopez), a mule who gives Maria further pointers.
Marston’s non-judgmental script documents the circumstances and type of gritty determination that lead Maria to accept such a dangerous commission. She’s never made to seem impressionable, easily led or driven by personal gain, but instead steps knowingly into the situation; it’s a credit to the writer-director’s insightfulness and to actress Moreno audience sympathy remains firmly on Maria’s side.
With admirable economy yet methodical detail, Marston outlines the process of ingesting scores of thumb-sized rubber pellets packed with heroin, and the dangers involved should one of them burst. Not since Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” has the mechanics of the drug trade been so fascinatingly illustrated.
The suspense is cranked up further when Maria boards the plane for New York, informed that failure to deliver the packages intact will have grave repercussions for her family. Traveling on the same flight are fellow mules Lucy, Maria’s best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), and a fourth woman — increasing the chance of a successful consignment in the case one of the mules is apprehended.
During the nail-biting plane journey, Lucy begins to feel ill, suggesting that a pellet has split open in her stomach. More nerve-wracking tension follows at U.S. customs; hauled in for questioning, Maria watches as the fourth mule is arrested, but narrowly avoids being x-rayed herself when the examining officers learn she’s pregnant.
The film’s final stretch becomes more distressing still as the girls are sequestered in a New Jersey hotel room by unceremonious thugs while they expel the drugs. But Lucy’s worsening condition causes brutal complications, prompting Maria and Blanca to flee. Marston closes the drama on a resonant note that, while by no means artificially upbeat, introduces an unforced sense of empowerment as Maria stands poised to take control of her future.
The drama is superbly calibrated at every turn and never predictable. By turns chilling and emotional, its suspense is fueled by keeping its gaze trained squarely on what’s at stake for the characters and by steadily upping the audience’s emotional investment in them. Marston avoids any distracting directorial flourishes. His approach is all about control and subtlety, reflected in Anne McCabe and Lee Percy’s clean editing and in accomplished d.p. Jim Denault’s agile yet stunningly crisp and simple camera work.
There’s not a false moment in the performances, and Marston excels in the many scenes of intimate confrontation — not only in scenes of high tension but also in the early action, notably Maria and Juan’s mutual admission that they are not in love.
Moreno is solemn, calm and reserved but at the same time feisty in an understated way that befits the director’s measured approach. Vega, as her spirited but less grounded friend Blanca, and Lopez as the more experienced but equally scared Lucy both make strong impressions. Associate producer Orlando Tobon appears in a role based on his position as unofficial “Mayor of Little Colombia” in Queens, New York, who has helped repatriate the bodies of drug mules who died while traveling to the U.S.