Running time: 101
out of Five
In Spanish with English subtitles
Impressively directed, moving and thought-provoking film featuring an Oscar nominated performance from newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno.
Maria Full of Grace has already been dubbed ‘Maria Full of Drugs’ by various cynical hacks, but it received a warm reception when it played at the London Film Festival last year before deservedly picking up an Oscar nomination for its lead actress. As such it looks certain to do well on the arthouse circuit now that it’s finally getting the release it deserves.
It even has a “controversial” poster - the image of Maria ‘receiving’ a pellet of drugs as if it were a communion wafer as already been graffitied with the word “BLASPHEMY!” in certain parts of London.
Appalling Work Conditions Lead To Drug Smuggling
Newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno stars as Maria, a 17 year old Columbian girl who quits her job in a rose plantation because of the appalling conditions. Her family are furious, largely because Maria’s wages are all they have to live on, but Maria’s problems don’t end there - unbeknownst to her family, she’s also pregnant by a boy she doesn’t love (Wilson Guerrero).
In desperation, she accepts a dangerous job as a drugs mule, smuggling heroin to New York. However, she hasn’t counted on her slightly dim-witted best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) tagging along. The girls befriend an experienced fellow mule named Lucy (Guilied Lopez), but when they touch down in New York things start to go horribly wrong…
Perhaps surprisingly, writer-director Joshua Marston is an American, a graduate of New York University’s film programme. He immersed himself in Columbian culture in preparation for the film and the results are undeniably impressive. It’s an incredibly realistic film, from the lighting to the performances, and it’s all the more terrifying for presenting its subject as an everyday reality. (The film’s effective tag-line, “Based on 1000 true stories”, speaks volumes).
Superb Lead Performance And Strong Support
Catalina Sandino Moreno gives a superb, naturalistic performance as Maria and Marston is careful not to glamorise her, despite the fact that she’s absurdly gorgeous. There’s also strong support from both Yenny Paola Vega (utterly convincing in her stubborn desire to emulate Maria) and Guilied Lopez, who brings an intriguing level of complexity to her character.
As well as being an impressive social drama, the film works well as a thriller - the sequence in the airport is extremely well directed and will have you on the edge of your seat. Similarly, the realities of the drug mule business are depicted in a series of superb scenes, including several that are not for the faint-hearted, such as the sight of Maria swallowing 62 pellets of condom-wrapped heroin.
In short, Maria Full Of Grace is a thoroughly engaging film, brilliantly acted throughout and impressively written and directed by Marston. Don’t be surprised if this shows up on several critics’ Best of 2005 lists by the end of the year. Highly recommended.