Monday, September 22, 2014

Maria Full of Grace

Originally Written and Posted at on 1/22/05 w/ Additional Edits

Written and directed by Joshua Marston, Maria Full of Grace is the story of a 17-year old woman who reluctantly becomes a drug mule to help her family in Colombia as she realizes the consequences she is facing. The film is an exploration of a young woman trying to deal with her circumstances as well as the sense of the unknown and risks she is taking as the role of Maria Alvarez is played by Catalina Sandino Moreno. Also starring Yenny Paola Vega, Guiled Lopez, John Alex Toro, Patricia Rae, and Wilson Guerrero. Maria Full of Grace is an astonishing film from Joshua Marston.

For the 17-year-old Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno), her life isn't easy while working in a flowering plantation pruning rose thorns with her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega). Working to support her mother, a grandmother, and older sister Diana (Johanna Andrea Mora) who has a baby, Maria feels like the only person who is doing anything. Her work life is very dismal compared to her social life as she learns she is pregnant with her boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero) as the father. Juan doesn't want to do anything so she breaks up with him and her work life gets worse as she quits her job. Her family is upset that she quit because her meager paycheck is what keeps them working but Maria is still willing to look for another job.

After meeting a smooth-talking man named Franklin (John Alex Toro) at a party, they meet again as he takes her to Bogota where he can get her a job. They go to Bogota where she learns that the job is to be a drug mule. They meet with the boss of the drug trade named Javier (Jaime Osorio Gomez) who asks some questions to Maria. He warns her about what could go wrong and everything but she takes the job. She goes home on a bus where she meets a fellow mule in Lucy (Guilied Lopez) who trains her to swallow big grapes that are shaped like the pellets she's going to carry. Maria mustn't bite the grapes or have holes in them or else she dies. With Javier giving Maria some money to pay off some bills for her family, Maria tells them she's taking a secretarial job in Bogota where she packs her things and gets a ride from Franklin.

Upon arriving in Bogota, she learned that Blanca is going to become a mule herself working for an associate of Javier. Maria goes to a clinic where she swallows 62 pellets worth of heroin that she must carry into New York City and stay there for the week where she'll receive $5000 for her work. With a passport, addresses, and other documents that she needed to get into the U.S., she, Lucy, Blanca, and another mule go on the plane from Bogota to New York. Having to hold in the pellets, they must not go to the bathroom but Maria does where two pellets come out but she puts them back in her stomach carefully as she arrives. Upon checking into customs, she learns that Lucy is sick as she is hoping to contact Lucy's sister Carla (Patricia Rae) about Lucy's condition. After going through customs, Maria learns the trouble of the trade as she seeks help from Carla and a Colombian businessman named Don Fernando (Orlando Tobon). There, Lucy learns of the sacrifices and trouble that is involved in the smuggling business as she learns the hard truth of life in America and Colombia.

Developed at the Sundance Institute, the film has all the makings of an indie film aesthetic and budget but thanks to Joshua Marston's gripping vision, the film is loaded with realism and a brooding tone that makes it compelling. Marston succeeds in his direction with his approach where scenes involving the customs search, airplanes, and the scenes involving the drugs and swallow pellets are very uneasy to watch. It's that sense of discomfort that works, notably in its screenplay where the film’s structure is filled with this dark momentum coming around and a third act where the morals and questions come into play. It's truly one of the smartest and most human scripts from a newcomer like Marston.

Marston’s eye-wielding vision is complemented greatly by cinematographer Jim Denault who uses some wonderful and steady handheld camera into the film that plays to the point-of-view of its protagonist and the way it captures the look of Colombia and New York where they have certain similarities as well as its differences from the polished New York to the more downtrodden town that Maria lives. With the look helped by production designers Debbie De Villa and Monica Marulanda and art director Yann Blanc for capturing that contrasting look of its locations. Editors Anne McCabe and Lee Percy help create a very straightforward yet methodical approach to the ending to play into its drama and suspense. The film's music by composers Leonardo Heiblum and Jacobo Lieberman have a nice, atmospheric tone that also plays well to the vibrant, Latin feel of the film's music.

The film's superb cast is filled with great performances, notably smaller ones from Johanna Andrea Mora as Maria's selfish sister and Wilson Guerrero as Maria’s loser boyfriend Juan. Jaime Osorio Gomez is excellent in the role of the drug leader Javier who brings a fraternal tone to his character as opposed to the big-shot tones done previously in most drug films. Orlando Tobon is another fraternal figure in the film as a man who is like a leader in Colombian communities in Queens, New York who provides the film's morality and makes Maria face her own conscious. John Alex Toro is wonderfully charming as Franklin while Patricia Rae brings an emotional center as Lucy’s sister, notably in the film's final act where she brings an intensity that is powerful. Guilied Lopez is also wonderful as Lucy with an understated performance as she teaches Maria the trade. Yenny Paola Vega is really the film's best supporting performance as Maria's pesky best friend who truly wants the money and is the one who doesn't have morals but by the end, realize the trouble they’re in as Vega gives a realistic, troubling performance.

The film's breakthrough is Catalina Sandino Moreno who gives probably the best debut performance of 2004. Moreno brings an external quality with her face and beauty that is very natural and very realistic while possessing a determination and grit that are evocative to watch. She doesn't make her character sympathetic or into someone that is very generous or good but someone who is rebellious yet has a sense of morality. Moreno makes her character grow and we feel sorry for her yet what she is doing is really awful but her choices and motivation is always filled with good intentions. Moreno is truly the heart and soul of the movie and she is a great discovery to watch.

The film's DVD doesn't include much except English, Spanish, and French subtitles with 2.0 and 5.1 Spanish audio mixing. Done in the typical 16:9 widescreen format, the movie looks and sounds great on DVD. The special features only includes two different trailers for the movie along with three trailers for HBO produced films like Real Women Have Curves, Gus Van Sant's Elephant, and the 2003 Sundance Award-winning American Splendor. Writer/director Joshua Marston provides an insightful audio commentary to the film talking about the technical aspects along with some of the things that goes on with the drug smuggling as well as the performances of the cast notably Moreno whom he discovered through audition tapes.

Maria Full of Grace is a powerful yet gripping film from Joshua Marston with an entrancing performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno. It's a film that explores the world of drug trafficking as well as what people will do in order to help others and later deal with the troubling consequences. In the end, Maria Full of Grace is a remarkable film from Joshua Marston.

© thevoid99 2014


Dell said...

I love this movie, it's so powerful. Have to watch this again, soon. Great review.

Brittani Burnham said...

It's been a long time since I've seen this one, but you're right. It was very powerful, and the lead actress was great. I think I'd like to watch this again. Great review!

thevoid99 said...

@Wendell-It's a film that I hope to rewatch soon and maybe get a Criterion release in the future.

@Brittani-I want to see it again too. It is a great film. Thank you.

Alex Withrow said...

Great review. I agree, this is a truly remarkable film. I only wish Moreno was in more. She's such a strong performer.

thevoid99 said...

@Alex Withrow-I agree. I was hoping she would be in more films as I liked her in Che and Fast Food Nation but I guess it's hard for her to get really good roles.