'Maria' finds heart-tugging humanism in drug trade

by Linzi Sheldon | 11/10/04 6:00am

Like its protagonist, "Maria of Full Grace" leaves a poignant, touching impression on an untouchable subject.

One of the taglines for "Maria Full of Grace" reads: "Based on 1,000 true stories." But while drug smuggling's frequency is undeniable, the acclaimed film's greatest attribute is its artful and moving humanization of one drug mule's story. Despite its controversial topic, "Maria Full of Grace" manages to tell its story with realism and dignity, not sensationalism or preaching.

Director Joshua Marston depicts the desperation and poverty of a rural Colombian town and the crowdedness of New York's Colombian immigrant population with equal care and tact. Winner of the Audience Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, "Maria Full of Grace" had the Hopkins Center's audience riveted in last week's showing.

The most important factor in the film was the casting of the character Maria Alvarez, a beautiful, stubborn, defiant teenaged girl who desires something more from her dead-end life de-thorning roses in a Colombian factory. The Berlin International Film Festival awarded Catalina Sandino Moreno the Silver Bear Award for her role as Maria, tying her with Oscar-winner Charlize Theron's portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in "Monster." In the part of Maria, Moreno is exceptional.

There is something about Moreno that draws one's gaze to her when she is onscreen. She is able to convey fear, distress and defiance with fleeting flashes in her expressive eyes and her subtlety makes the situations believable and heart-rending.

Maria's desperation to get out of her dead-end job is exacerbated by her ungrateful family (that she supports financially) and her disinterested boyfriend. When she discovers she is pregnant, hopelessness and frustration begin building behind Maria's deep brown eyes, as she sees herself married to a philandering young husband and working in the same flower factory for the rest of her life.

Fiery, determined and impulsive, Maria refuses her boyfriend's half-hearted marriage proposal and flirts with a drug runner from Bogot, who introduces her to a local drug lord. In a seedy bar, she agrees to become a drug mule for Colombian heroin smugglers, who immediately ask her the condition of her digestive system. She becomes acquainted with another young mule, Lucy, who has smuggled drugs twice before. As Lucy presents her with a bowl of large grapes and demonstrates the technique for swallowing such large objects, audience members instinctively cringe. Maria chokes and sputters, frustrated at her gag-reflex, and this image repeats itself as Maria distraughtly gazes into the mirror at home and practices her drug-swallowing skills.

One of the most heart-wrenching and horrific scenes in the movie is when Maria arrives at the pharmacist's to ingest the pellets of heroin she will be carrying to America. Each pellet is 4.2 cm long and 1.4 cm wide, and weighs ten grams, and Maria is seated at a table with 62 pellets and a bowl of soup in front of her to wash them down. She is given medicine to slow her digestive tract, with the disgusting instructions that if any pellets leave her system mid-flight, she must clean them and swallow them again.

As Maria struggles to swallow the pellets, one wants to reach out and save her. After she swallows about 30 of the pellets, the drug smuggler "sets" the pellets into place. He gently presses on her sides and stomach, and all the while the audience holds its breath, hoping against hope that one will not burst.

The film is, in fact, much more dramatic and suspenseful than one might expect. Maria boards the plane to America with over a pound of heroin in her stomach, lodged somewhere beside her ribs and her growing baby, and the flight is anything but uneventful.

When the girls are roughly hustled away from the airport and to a grimy hotel to "deposit" the drugs, a pellet bursts inside one of them, leading to a sequence of events that leaves Maria and a fellow mule alone on the streets of New York. As Maria's ponderous doe eyes gaze around New York in confusion, it is apparent how frightening the city truly is to countless impoverished immigrants who flood its streets each day in search of a better life.

The film is that rare cinematic treasure wherein it is not the cinematography, the special effects or the music that one remembers, but the acting, the actors and the feelings they invoked in you. Moreno carries this film in a star-making performance that allows the audience to feel her pain, her frustration, and her desire for freedom.

"Maria Full of Grace" is an eye-opening portrayal of the drug-trafficking industry, but it also uplifts without moralizing. Despite the horrors she has endured, Maria manages to emerge from the experience still hopeful for her future, as she finds the strength and grace to somehow save herself.

"Maria Full of Grace" will be released on DVD and VHS on Dec. 7, 2004.