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Maria Full of Grace

April 14, 2012

Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Director: Joshua Marston
Actors: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez

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Synopsis: Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) endures a challenging life in a small Colombian town outside of Bogotá. She has fallen pregnant, her family are largely reliant on her income, and she has just quit her awful job in a flower plantation. Opportunity knocks though as Maria meets a man at a party who offers her the chance to earn decent money by being a drug mule and smuggling heroine to New York….

Review: Taken at face value, as the ‘issue movie’ it initially appears to be (highlighting the plight of Colombian drug mules) Maria Full of Grace might appear a touch didactic. Some of the players in the story are clear stereotypes: the plantation owner where Maria works is uniformly sadistic and the drug-dealers who meet Maria and her friends in New York are one-dimensionally nasty. Even one or two elements of the plotting don’t particularly ring true (would four or five very frightened and suspicious-looking drug mules all really be dispatched on the same flight?)

The irony is that if you put some of that storytelling to one side, this is still one of the most gripping and moving films of the last decade. As pure drama it is absolutely compelling – one particular highlight being the nailbiting sequence where Maria is apprehended by the customs staff straight after arriving in New York. The film becomes compelling because director Joshua Marston plays the drama out quietly and naturalistically – scenes fade in and out, there are no showy aesthetics (no accompanying soundtrack, no fancy camera tricks – at least until the emotional, symbolic climax), and the action is set in identifiably ‘real’ locations and situations.

The film’s main calling card though is as a really moving and convincing character study. By the end of the film, you realise that the Colombian drug mule theme is a bit of ‘red herring’ and a means by which to propel Marston’s parable about a woman’s self-determination and an ironic, but nonetheless powerful, example of the American Dream. Making all this work is the brilliant lead actress Catalina Sandino Moreno. In fact it’s one the greatest recent female movie performances, as she makes tangible the film’s thesis of Maria as a young woman full of courage and grace. (April 2012)

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