Maria Full of Grace Review
By Shawn McKenzie 07/30/2004
I unfortunately don’t get to a lot of foreign language films, which is a shame, since some of them are very good. The latest example of an excellent foreign language film is Maria Full of Grace, a Spanish language film mostly shot in Queens in New York City. I have to be honest…having not known anything about it, I was afraid it was going to be dull, since the title doesn’t really stand out. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised with an interesting and original story.
Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a 17-year-old girl living with her family in a small town in Colombia. She works in a rose plantation stripping the thorns off the roses to support her family, which includes her mother Juana (Virginia Ariza), her sister Diana (Johanna Andrea Mora), and Diane’s baby son Pancho (Mateo and Fabricio Suarez), who all seem incapable of getting jobs themselves. After several days of missing work due to ill health, she quits because they won’t let her go to the restroom when she gets sick. She finds out why she is sick though; she is pregnant with her boyfriend Juan’s (Wilson Guerrero) child. Juan proposes marriage to her, but Maria, being a semi-intelligent girl, rejects his offer. A more tempting offer comes from one of Juan’s friends, Franklin (John Álex Toro.) He is recruiting “drug mules” for a Bogotá-based drug exporter named Javier (Jaime Osorio Gomez.) A drug mule swallows pellets of pure heroin, travels to New York City, and hands them over to the recipients in the city. One trip would support her and her family for years, but the possibility of being caught is huge. After Franklin assures her that only people who want to be famous get caught, she agrees to meet Javier. The drug peddler has her swallow 62 pellets, something that she learns to do by practicing swallowing grapes whole, a trick taught to her by a more experienced mule named Lucy (Guilied Lopez.) Maria tells her mother that she has gotten a job in Chiquinquirá working for an office and that she needs to stay there due to the far distance. She is surprised to learn that she won’t be the only mule heading to NYC. Lucy and Maria’s best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), a shy and ordinary girl who worked with Maria at the rose plantation, join her on the trip with bellies full of heroin pellets as well. They manage to make it in the city, where the New York dealers force the girls to extract the pellets and hand them over. When Lucy gets sick, Maria and Blanca fear that she is going to die, so they freak out and run away with the pellets. They head to the apartment of Lucy’s older sister, Carla (Patricia Rae), whom Maria had gotten the address from Lucy previously. Things are cramped for Carla, her husband Pablo (Fernando Velasquez), and Pablo’s brother Felipe (Charles Albert Patino), but she takes them in, thinking that they are just fellow immigrants. She sets them up with Don Fernando (Orlando Tobón), who tries to help them get settled in America. When Don Fernando discovers why she is truly there and informs her of Lucy’s current condition, she must decide if she wants to go back to Colombia or make a new life in the USA.
This movie is writer/director Joshua Marston’s first movie, and it took the Dramatic Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. He is off to a great start, because he has managed to show the ugliness of being a mule, a topic that hasn’t really been explored in the past. Marston, who grew up in California and attended New York University, took quite a chance when he decided to have all of the principal characters speak in their native Colombian language (with English subtitles), because foreign language films aren’t typically big box office draws. I think that if he had made the characters speak in English with Colombian accents, it would have made the story less believable.
The acting is quite good all around, but the standout is the title character played by Moreno. It is her first role, but you would swear that she was a veteran actress. It almost seemed seamless for her.
If you want to take a chance on a foreign language film this year (and I don’t count The Passion of the Christ), check out Maria Full of Grace. It explores an angle of the drug culture not seen in movies like Traffic. I also hope it gets an Oscar nod in the foreign language category, because it deserves it.
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