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In Joshua Marston's small budget film Maria Full of Grace, a headstrong
Colombian girl of seventeen (Catalina Sandino Moreno), determined to escape
from a country where the average annual income is about $1700 US, seizes an
opportunity to earn $5000 by ingesting and transporting illegal drugs to New
York at considerable risk to herself and her unborn child. Inspired by a
woman in his Brooklyn neighborhood who told him her story of swallowing
capsules of heroin and boarding a plane for the United States, first-time
director Marston has escaped the clichés of social realist films to offer a
riveting human odyssey that transcends simplistic messages of good and evil.
Shot in documentary style with a hand-held camera in Ecuador and New York,
the film's authenticity is greatly enhanced by its use of Colombian actors
speaking in their native Spanish language.
Maria Alvarez along with her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), works at a job stripping thorns from roses in a village near Bogota, Colombia. Despite low wages and deplorable working conditions, her pay provides support for her grandmother, mother, sister, and infant nephew to sustain their meager household. After she has words with her boss, she quits her job and soon discovers she is pregnant by a local boy Juan (Wilson Guerrero) whom she does not love and refuses to marry. Feeling trapped, she quickly accepts when Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), a friend she recently met at a dance, offers her a huge sum of money to smuggle drugs into the U.S. The trick is that she must swallow up to 100 heroin pellets sealed with latex and dental floss, knowing that certain death follows if one of them bursts.
The lovely Ms. Moreno, in an Oscar-worthy debut performance, is no cardboard character but a fully developed human being who epitomizes the desperation of people who are willing to do almost anything to better their life. The tension is almost unbearable as we follow Maria's odyssey into danger. She soon meets drug kingpin Javier (Jaime Osorio Gomez), who explains the operation, and in secret, talks with Lucy (Guilied Lopez), who shares her experience in carrying drugs to America and allows her to practice by swallowing large grapes.
After barely escaping the probing of U.S. Customs Officers in New York, things begin to go wrong and Maria and Blanca must rely on their tremendous resolve to survive in a confusing and lonely environment. Winner of the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance and two major awards at the Berlin Film Festival, Maria Full of Grace is not only a hard-hitting jab at a global economic system that allows exploitation of the poor to satisfy the pleasure of the rich, but a richly nuanced coming-of-age story that delivers its hard-edged message with understanding and compassion. One of the best films of the year.
I really liked this movie a lot. It's refreshing to come across a
compelling human drama that is told in such an incredibly honest and
unexaggerated fashion that it ends up feeling wonderfully real and
completely believable. The rather straightforward story only makes the
movie feel more convincing - not at all contrived.
Maria Alvarez, played by previous unknown Catalina Sandino Moreno, is a seventeen year old who falls into the sticky-sweet trap of seeking a quick escape from the drudgery and hopelessness of her mundane existence. She turns to drugs. Not using them, though - smuggling them. Working as a drug mule offers her the chance at easy money. But, like most young people, she dives into it headlong - without fully realizing the risks and possible consequences. In fact, this movie really is all about young people stumbling over their own poor judgements (yes, it can be painful to watch at times).
Given all the hype that surrounded this movie when it was released, I found it to be not quite as harrowing as I had expected. Perhaps I'm just too jaded and desensitized. In truth, there were moments where I felt genuinely afraid for Maria. Mostly, though, there was just a real sense of the despair and desperation that fills the lives of these young Colombians. Perhaps this movie will, after all, not be the centerpiece of the Colombia Tourism Board's upcoming marketing and public relations campaign.
In the spirit of keeping it genuine (aka believable), all the acting in this movie is right on the mark - all the actors deliver. Of course, Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria) is so graced with natural beauty and she projects such a gentle and humble manner that one can't really help but feel empathy for her character. In fact, if there is anything to find fault with in the casting of her as Maria, it's that you're left wondering why her boyfriend would be such a God-damned idiot as to pass her up. If he had even an ant's worth of common sense, he would be madly in love with her. Not? So, that's the one element that doesn't gel so well.
The moody and melancholic music throughout this film - with plenty of beautiful acoustic guitar playing - supports the emotional content of the movie perfectly. Thankfully, it doesn't overtly bang you on the head with "feel sad here", and "feel scared here", and "feel relieved here". It sinks back a bit to find its harmony with the other elements. Nice.
The cinematography is beautiful in its simplicity and its understated manner. The word "modest" - in its best sense - serves well in describing this movie. Overall, it's just not as heavily stylized as other the-perils-of-getting-involved-with-drugs type movies - such as "Requiem For a Dream", "Traffic", "Blow", and "City of God", to name but a few - and with little of the annoying moralizing that tends to poison movies of this "genre".
In conclusion, most of us have already learned in life that one shouldn't be an ass. What this movie teaches us is that it's also not a good idea to be a mule.
It upsets me when I see a well-crafted film like this getting mediocre ratings (even if it is a "weighted average" on IMDb). As I write this most people who have voted have given Maria Full of Grace a "7" or higher. I was so engrossed by Maria's story and the acting that went into it that, at times, I felt as if I was watching a documentary. (I also had that feeling watching "City of God"). The Audience Award at Sundance was obviously well deserved. Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria) gives the type of performance that should make a lot of directors take note. And the story itself makes you to pause to consider the reasons why some people are involved in the drug trade. See this film!
"Maria Full of Grace" tells the tale of an impoverished 17 year old Colombian who becomes pregnant and, in need of money, signs on as a drug "mule", smuggling cocaine pellets into the US in her GI tract. An exceptional film for a low budget one man band indie with a deubting artist in the leading role, this film imparts a strong sense of been-there-done-that reality as it follows Maria from Bogota to New York where her life begins to unravel. Unusually well managed without being junked up with the usual Hollywood tawdry tinsel and situational extremes, this very human drama does more pound-for-pound than most films many times its size. Kudos to auteur Marston and company and ingenue Moreno for this interesting and enjoyable drama. (B+)
When I first heard about María Llena eres de Gracia and its subject, I
had many doubts about the treatment of such a delicate subject and how
Colombian this movie was, with a writer/director from the USA; but when
I heard the interviews and read de reviews I got really interested in
the film and went to see it as soon as I could.
The first thing that must be highlighted about this film is the treatment of the drug dealing problem. In this kind of movies is really easy to fall in the conventions and make a story full of clichés with police chases and all powerful heroes, but not, fortunately the director takes another perspective and gets into the life of the 'Mulas', and shows the whole picture without any prejudgment.
Is admirable how a person that had never been in Colombia, before the movie, understands the problem and shows it in a so delicate and powerful way, and is able to put it in the big screen without extremes so common in films about Latin America made by foreign directors, as an example watch Len Loach's Carla's Song.
The story of the movie is quite simple: a 17 years old girl has many economic problems and takes the 'mule' work as an opportunity to get the money she needs. The narration is lineal and relays absolutely in the work of the two main actresses, and this is the success of the movie, the work of the two girls is superb, they transmit lots of energy in the screen, and although sometimes the decisions of the characters are quite sudden, their interpretation makes them absolutely believable.
The movie changed the cover, for commercial reasons of course, and that is a shame, because the first one was really beautiful, it showed Maria in the airport in the middle of a group as if she were in a procession, but the new one although good is more obvious and drug oriented and lacks the delicacy of the film.
Let's wait for Mr Marston next movie.
Maria Full of Grace is one of the better films of 2004: well acted,
well written, and very unique in its' story. From the beginning to the
end Joshua Marston chooses to present the story in a way that has us
relating and sympathizing with Maria in her plight to find her place in
A very real topic with very real portrayal and acting, this is definitely one of the better films to come out. It presents its story at a quick pace and leaves you wanting more.
Overall, I enjoyed the film and recommend it to anyone in general, being a great triumph in film-making. I hope to see more films from Joshua Marston in the future.
Small film about a big business.
Poverty, desperation and bravery spiral into a mess and culminate in pregnant 17-year-old Maria sitting in a room, trying to swallow 60 plastic capsules full of narcotics to smuggle for money. When she later on needs to swallow two more, it is a scene so painful that it is almost unbearable to watch. Maria: Full of Grace (2004) is a clear-eyed and relevant portrayal of a young girl in Columbia being exploited by the drug industry - in spite of its dark material, it projects a lot of heart and spirit.
They say that reality is often more frightening than fiction - and this is true for this film; it is so realistic and down-to-earth that it becomes harrowing in almost every scene. Catalina Sandino Moreno is fantastic as the dignified, brave Maria whose high-spirited nature propels the otherwise dark film. She is a girl who speaks little, but says so much. She knows what she needs to do, and she does it like she means business.
The above is also true for Joshua Marston's Maria: Full of Grace (2004) - it does not preach about morals; there is no melodrama, politics, sugar-coating romances or effects, but an understated yet brutal depiction of a young girl's journey in learning to cope and be responsible. Extremely well-crafted and important film that does not claim to be important, and that is endlessly refreshing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
[WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS]
There's a moment in "Maria Full of Grace" where the tension's so palpable you'd think Joshua Marston had made a genuine suspense-thriller, not an independent character-driven drama about someone seeking greener pastures.
The scene takes place aboard an airplane. In the bathroom, Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) grapples with putting two drug-filled pellets back into her system, while in the gangway, Lucy (Guilied Lopez), another human drug-mule, faces the sickening reality about one of her latex pellets. There are a couple of equally tense moments later, too.
This story's ripe for overblown clichés and stereotypical characters. But what makes "Maria Full of Grace" so engrossing is Marston's nonjudgmental and unsentimental look at his protagonist's life so that we understand and, in a strange way, appreciate, why she decides to become a drug mule. True, she freely decides what to do, but it's really Hobson's choice.
Marston peoples his film with original voices and makes them authentic. He lets us into Maria's life long before she ever decides to transport drugs in her belly, turning her tale into a riveting character study of a hard-working young woman forced to seek a more fulfilling, safer life.
Moreno gives 17-year-old Maria dignity, sweetness and innocence. Yet, she's no pushover, but a strong, determined woman who wants desperately to better her life. When her boyfriend wants to fool around, Maria would rather be more adventurous and climb to the roof of an unfinished building. When her mother orders her to give up her wages to pay for her medicine for her unemployed sister's kid, we feel Maria's rage and frustration.
Marston makes something grim and menacing out of a simple story. Yet, his story unwinds with tremendous restraint and intelligence. He eschews melodrama in favor of insightful, deeply moving, compelling scenes of personal struggle.
Even when the second half of the film could have easily been mired in conventional storytelling, Marston keeps this a gripping character study. This movie reminded me of Michael Winterbottom's 2002 docudrama, "In This World," which dealt with the torment some Afghan refugees endure to escape to the West, and Gregory Nava's "El Norte" (1983).
These films crystallized the West's allure for impoverished people and the often-harrowing lengths to which they will go for a chance at a better, more secure life. I suppose that's one reason why Marston opts for an optimistic view for his heroine. But, in fairness to this talented filmmaker, he neither paints an entirely rosy picture nor implies there are more Marias than Lucys in the drug world. The predicaments Marston creates for his characters are, at times, positively gut-wrenching.
This film's strength lies in Marston's neo-realist approach. He pays meticulous attention to detail, whether it's Maria's life at home, the prickly work at the flower factory, her unconventional independent spirit, her throat exercises to prepare becoming a mule or the creation and ingestion of the latex pellets. The latter is done so matter-of-factly it makes it all the more horrifying.
If Hollywood does in fact seek and honor originality and real talent, then Marston should wind up with a multi-picture deal and Moreno a much-deserved Oscar nomination for best actress. I, for one, would be thrilled if she wins the statuette.
Horrowing like nothing I've seen in a while.What a great movie, it was so disturbing at times I could'nt sleep. Reading Ralph Michael Stein comments I realize how differently people's take on the central character of Maria can be, to me she and people like her are not the criminals in this sad story but definitely the exploited. If it were'nt for drug users in wealthy countries like ours, who considered "partying" a fun harmless escape, girls like Maria would never even have the opportunity of risking their lives in such a miserable way. It's definitely put guilt and thought towards those times I might have indulged in irrisponsible behavior in the past, so taking that into consideration, the film's done it's job.
In a small village in Colombia, the pregnant seventeen years old Maria
(Catalina Sandino Moreno) supports her family with her salary working
in a floriculture. She is fired and with a total lack of perspective of
finding a new job, she decides to accept the offer to work as a drug
mule, flying to USA with approx. seventy pellets of cocaine in her
stomach. Once in New York, things do not happen as planned.
"Maria Full of Grace" is a very powerful and real movie about the lack of perspective in the life of teenagers in poor countries. The dramatic story takes place in Colombia and is based on real events, the use of poor people to transport drugs to United States of America. Once there, the poor adolescent sees a chance to join to the American Dream and give a better life to her unborn child and make money to send to her family. In my country, mules are not the problem, but the use of children, protected by law, by the dealers in the traffic of drugs. The story is very well written, and the movie has a stunning direction. Catalina Sandino Moreno has awesome performance and this film really deserves the nomination for Oscar and another twenty-seven (27) wins and twenty-one (21) nominations in Festivals. The title plays with the Catholic prayer "Ave Maria". My vote is nine.
Title (Brazil: "Maria Cheia de Graça" ("Maria Full of Grace")
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