Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Virgina Ariza, Yenny Paola Vega, Charles Albert Patiño, Wilson Guerrero and Orlando Tobón
Directed by Joshua Marston
I rented Maria Full of Grace a couple of weeks ago and it sat on the shelf above the television until tonight. It’s been kind of hectic around here lately, what with guests from out of town and picnics and birthday parties and whatnot, so we didn’t find an opportunity to watch it right away. But Blockbuster wants it back before noon tomorrow or I’m going to pay seventeen bucks for the DVD. All it takes is the right motivation, I guess.
Laura is downstairs watching it again, this time with commentary from writer/director Joshua Marston (about the only real extra on the DVD), so it’s safe to say she… what? Liked it? Enjoyed it? I don’t know if those are words that you can apply to a movie like Maria Full of Grace. To say you liked it doesn’t feel right. As if liking such a movie means that you like the idea of a desperate, pregnant seventeen-year old Colombian girl swallowing sixty-three condom-wrapped pellets of heroin each only slightly smaller than your thumb in order to get them past U.S. customs.
Perhaps a better word is “appreciated,” because Maria Full of Grace tells a compelling story, is incredibly suspenseful, very gritty, unglamorous, and real.
Orlando Tobón, who plays Don Fernando in the film, provides some of that realism. The character Don Fernando is based largely on Tobón’s own experiences as “The Mayor of Little Colombia.” Over the past twenty years, Tobón has provided all manner of assistance to Colombian immigrants, and has helped return the bodies of 400 Colombian drug mules to their homeland. Those pellets of heroin can burst inside a mule’s stomach, and the result is usually fatal.
Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Maria Alvarez, and does so quite convincingly. The scenes in which Maria swallows the heroin pellets are enough to trigger the gag reflex. The pellets look obscenely huge, and the process by which they are created and ultimately ingested is both fascinating and repulsive. What happens to Maria after she swallows the pellets is frightening and suspenseful. Marston’s story is believable without being predictable, while Moreno’s portrayal of the lead character is earnest and powerful.
Maria Full of Grace shows a side of drug trafficking that is seldom seen in movies. There aren’t any car chases, shootouts, or drug busts. There’s no Drug Enforcement Agent looking to take down the head of a cartel. There’s also no wire-tapping, stakeouts or undercover narcs. There are just ordinary people living in difficult situations who find themselves facing an opportunity, a tough decision, and a very dangerous journey.