Maria Full of Grace (2004) Poster

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From a life that's hard to swallow, to drugs that are hard to swallow.
www.tomkidding.com14 December 2004
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.
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Compelling, with one of the most memorable performances of the year
anhedonia26 August 2004
Warning: 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.
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A beautiful film.
chariots918 August 2004
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!
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It's not grace she's full of...
Flagrant-Baronessa7 August 2006

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.

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A riveting human odyssey that transcends simplistic messages
Howard Schumann9 August 2004
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.
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pedrodegreiff8 October 2004
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.
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Maria full of cocaine
George Parker9 December 2004
"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+)
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Stirring & Provocative
J. M. Verville8 December 2004
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 the sun.

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.
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apache6727 August 2004
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.
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Powerful and Real
Claudio Carvalho24 December 2005
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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I wouldn't have to like having to make such choices
buerkle18 September 2004
This movie was powerful, seamless. I can't think of a scene where I asked myself, why did we need that? It was even-handed. The director could have dramatized the plight of María's family more. But he didn't. I didn't think a real-life Maria would have told Lucy's sister that Lucy had died and she didn't.

I liked seeing the crowding in the house in Colombia and in the house in Queens. The customs agents weren't portrayed as stupid boobs, but rather as professionals, thus making María's plight seem more real. Don Fernando's role seemed incredibly accurate as an immigrant ombudsman. And the ending was powerful. It touched me. I will take my students to see this movie this week. (I'm a high school teacher). When will they stop producing heroin and cocaine in Colombia? As soon as we here in the United States stop shoving it up our noses.
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Based on 1,000 true stories.
Jessica Carvalho28 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
'Maria Full of Grace'is a good movie and the first I watched who shows how a mule works. I only have heard about people swallowing drugs few times, but they never told exactly how the drug stayed there.With this movie I could see many steps since they finding the girl to showing her traveling abroad, with her perspectives of life,documents and needs. This story does not makes you bothered and also shows a very sad reality that happens in south America: people traveling to foreign countries(specially USA) to try a better life. In Maria's case, she was basically the only one who worked in her house, without a father to help her, her mother and her sister who had a baby. I think this movie deserves to be watched for everybody else interested in the sad reality of south America.
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gem of 2004!
gromit-1726 December 2004
Just watched the movie on DVD. It's one of the best and powerful movies I've seen in 2004. Originally I thought the movie has something to do with the religion from the title and poster. But it's not, although it's a movie about sin and redemption. The poster is cleverly designed and requires second viewing.

I'm really surprised that I didn't see this movie in the Golden Globe Nomination list. Come on guys. Compare to this movie, all the nominated best foreign films this year are fluff.

I hope Oscar won't overlook this gem. It's a wonderful movie and is deserved to be recognized.
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A Huge FIRST in Cinema History!
KissEnglishPasto30 November 2016
Since the Oscars began in 1927, there have been a total of 420 Oscar nominations in the category of Best Leading Actress. Only 12 have been awarded to actresses in works filmed in languages, other than English. Catalina Sandino Moreno, with her Oscar nomination as best actress in María Llena de Gracia (Maria Full of Grace) was the first Colombian, moreover, the first Spanish-speaking actress, no less, to receive a nomination in this category.

In 1960, for the first time, two actresses received nominations in this category for roles in movies filmed other languages: Greek and Italian. Sophia Loren won the Oscar for her role in Two Women. It was the first and, so far, the only time an actress has taken home such a sought-after award for an interpretation realized in a language other than English. The list of nominees reads like a "Who's Who" of famous actresses and recognized by their talent, whose native language is not English:

Melina Mercouri for Never on Sunday ('60-Greek), Sophia Loren for Marriage to 'Italian ('64), Ida Kaminska for The Shop on Main St. ('65- Czech), Anouk Aimée for Un Homme et Une Femme (So ​​Sophie Loren and Liv Ullman are the only two actresses to be nominated twice).

But there is another interesting category: 19 nominations, in total, for actresses making their film debut. Most of them, like Katherine Hepburn, Julie Andrews and Barbra Striesand, went on to reach "Superstardom"! By carefully reviewing the names in the previous paragraph, you can see that all the above mentioned actresses were already well-known, with long trajectories and many previous films, when the Academy did them the honor of nominating them.

Perhaps most interesting aspect of the nomination of Catalina Sandino Moreno is that, for the first time in Oscar History, the nomination for Best Actress had been given to a newcomer, for a role in a film produced in another language! (It's also the first time that the Academy named someone who performed a role in Spanish!) I hope that every Colombian felt a special pride in savoring such important news.

However, at the time I thought it prudent not to get all that excited about Ms. Sandino's prospects of winning...And, of course, as it turned out...I was right! Speaking in real terms, the Academy, undoubtedly, considers the simple act of getting a nomination for a role done in another language to be such a great honor, in and of itself, that it decided it would be much better to give the Oscar to another nominee...or, at least, the lack of any other Winner in 50 years certainly gives that impression!

I dare, now, offer Ms. Sandino a couple of suggestions! (Hopefully this Review will make it into your hands!) Not too many years ago, you lived your life as 99.99% of people: in total anonymity! Then, I imagine, with the release of Maria Llena Eres de Gracia, there was a dramatic change in your life. In Colombia and with all your ex-patriots, you became an extremely well-known celebrity, with job offers beginning to rain down on you!

And Everything accelerated frantically on the Tuesday the Oscar nominations were announced! You must have felt as though you were living in a fish bowl! Under a microscope in front of everyone, with the number of job offers growing rapidly! My humble suggestion: That you look for roles that are totally different role, and try to seek out films that have absolutely nothing to do with drugs or crime!

My additional advice ... Well, since I do not know your plans regarding the possibility of making films in English or not, nor have I had the opportunity to hear you speak in English, I do not know if you really speak "a perfect English" as you mentioned in an article written about you in TIME On-Line.

What is true in Hollywood is that any actor with a foreign accent which is relatively easy to perceive does not really have many options for any important roles. (With the exception of Arnold Scharzennegger, and to a lesser extent, Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude van Damme)

As an example I give you Salma Hayek. Excellent actress, with more than enough English to conduct any press conference with relative ease. But, who, since she has not yet managed to shake off a residual accent, does not seem to be offered any really good roles other than those of a Latina woman. Unfair? Of course! But it is a sad reality. In effect: If you want to work in Hollywood, hopefully, your English must actually reach a native level, or very-near native level!

In closing, I have left a topic which may be somewhat difficult for many. I was going to start this review with it, but I decided not to put it first so as not to start on a negative note. As a person who truly values ​​and wants to see Colombia treated fairly on screen, obviously, I would have preferred that the central theme of MARIA been focused on something else! Unfortunately, for too many Americans, upon hearing "Colombia", DRUGS is the first thing that pops into their minds!

Certainly, how much better better it would have been, if the nomination had been for a film like "La Estrategia del Caracol"! Well, at least, MARIA seemed intent on showing some of the cruel consequences suffered by some Colombians who get involved in the Drug trade in order to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetite for illicit drugs demonstrated by people living in the U.S.A.!


Any comments, questions or observations, in English or Español, are most welcome!.....
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Simple portrait hiding depths
abbywts24 May 2008
There's not a moment in this movie that I found out of line or unrealistic. It makes you ask yourself "what would I do if this were my situation?" It is a perfectly normal portrait of how the other half has to live. The film has a slow desperation about it, without the usual modern artifacts like music or camera tricks. The desperation occurs from the story itself- how about that for a concept. The actors are tremendous in showing restraint and it pays off. The exchanges between the sisters are heartbreaking and frustrating and, again, believable. The scene in which a minor character dies could have been savagely shown, but instead only the aftermath was shown and described. It somehow makes what happened only that much more savage in our imaginations.
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Robert J. Maxwell4 February 2006
It probably sounds depressing -- three girls from a village in Colombia find themselves broke, are hired as mules to smuggle drugs into New York by swallowing little condoms full, get mixed up with unfeeling and possibly murderous receivers in America, and find themselves almost broke again, or worse.

But this is almost a documentary of what these young girls go through. You come away knowing the DETAILS of how this is all done. Of course we've heard of smuggling drugs in by swallowed condoms. It's in a famous early episode of "Law and Order." And breaking news has it that now dogs are being used -- the reporter always specifies that they are "puppies." But it's informative to see how the process actually works. The three girls we follow from Colombia to New York are not among the wretched poor. Maria, Blanca, and Luci are rather working class but their incomes are too low for them to manage a normal existence and swallowing some dope seems like an easy way to add enough to their incomes to keep their heads above water. The challenges facing them don't include starvation but less dramatic problems like having your electricity shut off.

I'll just mention one detail. I'd always thought that the organizer of the plan would dump a few teaspoons of coke into a condom, tie it off, snip off the excess, and -- voila! A container the size of a grape. But no. These guys are ergonomically sophisticated. There is a manual device that crimps off each stuffed and swollen condom at a length of about 2 inches. They're BIG bundles. The girls have to practice by eating large grapes. And the bundles are coated with oil so that they can be swallowed without activating the gag reflex. It's a pretty disgusting and humiliating experience, what with going through a customs office that knows very well you're carrying, and having to expel them while anxious dealers wait around for you. And of course, if one of the bundles suffers an untimely pop, well what happens to you is what happens to the puppies who are now being used.

But the movie isn't just educational in a narrow sense. Maria, a beautiful girl, is only 17 and pregnant. She's compliant but intelligent, and she retains her dignity. Luci gets sick and suffers the puppy treatment, leaving a bathtub of blood. Blanca, homely and plump and rather dumb, departs for Bogota. And Maria is left alone, friendless, and homeless in Queens. Now THAT is something that shouldn't happen to a dog. The scene is which she and Blanca part at Newark Airport is wordless and painful to watch.

The director handles all of this with simple restraint, wisely, because the narrative itself is strong enough to carry the movie. Maria may be strong but she's impulsive too -- that pregnancy, that decision to be a "mula". He doesn't preach at all. And there are no dazzling directorial displays. The director is a guy in charge of his talent. Maria may be full of grace but she is also full of a lot of other things -- a baby, heroin, resentment. And there is an almost unnoticeable commercial billboard behind her as she leaves Blanca, "It's What's Inside That Counts."

As Maria, Catalina Moreno seems both innocent and strong, poised as it were between the unfortunate child she's left behind and the hardened whore she is likely to become. She rarely loses composure. At first I thought it was because she simply was not a seasoned actress, but there is a scene in which she watches the ultrasound image of her fetus and she giggles a little and her face lights up with expectant happiness. It's the only time she grins in the entire movie and it makes her seem to glow joyously. And unthinkingly too. That baby is going to cost a fortune and probably won't go to Philips Andover.

It's a heartbreaking movie, really, but strangely not depressing. Some people are rotten, others are kindly, and most are just trying to get along. If it's depressing, well, so is life at the mall.
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Ironic Product Placement at End of Great Movie
MikeFromNJ3 June 2005
My wife and I enjoyed this movie thoroughly. As a previous commenter said, you forget that you are watching a movie, sub-titles notwithstanding. Catalina Sandino Moreno provides a memorable performance, conveying as much in a glance as several lines of dialog would.

Was it just me, or did anyone else catch the irony of the product placement at the end of the movie? There is a scene of Maria in front of an Intel billboard, with the tag line "It's what's inside that counts." Maybe it was just serendipity on the part of the movie makers, but it certainly summarizes the reason for Maria's final choice, as well as the attitude of the people Maria worked for.

And yes, that's really my name ;-)
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Deceptiveley Simple
write_naked23 March 2005
I saw Maria Full of Grace this afternoon,, where do I begin?

I think the thing about this movie that surprised me the most was it's simplicity. The story is one that has been used in many different contexts, time periods, and places; a girl, age 17, needs a job to support her family and so turns to the unthinkably dangerous (and well paying). In this case, she becomes a mule and transports pellets full of heroin from Colombia to New York by swallowing them. It was a practice that I had heard of before, but was unfamiliar enough with to joke about it; also to completely dehumanize those involved.

However, this movie somehow managed to humanize the mules- all, incidentally, Colombian girls and young women- without glamorizing it's subject. The scene where Maria swallows the capsules is almost unbearably slow. There are no quick cutaways or exciting camera angles. The room where that pivotal movement takes places is drab and nondescript, and there is no sound effects or music to add a feeling of urgency. You see it for what it is; a seventeen year old girl swallowing fifty drug filled pellets made out of latex glove fingers.

Even the shots of New York City, which are so often used to excite an audience and force powerful emotions, are simplistic. There are no closeups on hardly anything, mostly long, well composed shots of mostly one color, if you know what I mean; the gray of the skyline, perhaps a neon sign here and there amongst other neon signs, but for the most part, the city actually appears quite boring. Busy, yes, huge, yes, but nowhere near as interesting as what is happening to Maria and the other mules.

And therein I think lies the allure of this movie. Parts of it are very slow, and seems like it should be very easy for English speakers like me to get lazy and zone out, rather than reading the subtitles. However, I was captivated the entire time, because amongst all of the simplicity, the long shots, and the bland colors, was this deceptively simple story. You were forced to sit for twenty minutes and watch Maria swallow the pellets, most of this taking place in the same shot. You then had to sit for another twenty minutes and watch the entire airplane ride to New Jersey, which wasn't much more than Maria and the other mules grimacing, sweating, and running to the bathroom. However, there was a feeling of anxiety and discomfort in both of these scenes; it feels almost as if you are not a member of an audience, but actually one of the mules, and that is not what I would consider a good feeling.

Therefore, Maria Full of Grace manages to do what I foolishly believed was impossible for modern filmmakers to comprehend; to create a gripping story based on a relatively simple plot; to use long shots and plain backgrounds and still manage to keep an audience's attention; to go easy on music and sound effects; and to go light on unnecessary dialogue. It also helps that not one person casted for this movie seemed out of place or untalented; Catalina Sandino Moreno is by far one of the best actresses I've ever seen. I also feel like my eyes have really been opened to a problem that I never realized existed, to a practice that I had somehow never thought of as hurtful, and if that is what Joshua Marston set out to do, he more than accomplished his goal.
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Powerful and engrossing
rosscinema16 August 2004
Warning: Spoilers
This is one of those gritty and realistic dramas that reminds someone like myself why I love films so much even after sitting through mostly mediocre Hollywood efforts. In my perfect world a film such as this would be considered the norm but in the shallow times that we live in this is a rare treat that shows viewers a world that doesn't get shown in a realistic light. Story is about a young pretty Columbian girl named Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who quits her boring job at the flower factory and also learns that her boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero) has gotten her pregnant. Maria doesn't want to get married and while attempting to look for another job in Bogota she gets offered the opportunity to be a drug courier. She accepts and learns that she must swallow vials of cocaine and keep them in her stomach until she gets to New York City.


Her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) also gets the same job but Maria makes friends with Lucy (Guilied Lopez) who shows her the ropes and tells her about visiting her sister while in America. They arrive in the States and after some difficulty with Customs they are picked up and brought to a motel until the vials pass through their system. Lucy gets sick after a vial breaks open inside her and during the night she dies and her body is dragged out to be disposed of which prompts Maria and Blanca to flee. They decide to find Lucy's sister Carla (Patricia Rae) and they stay with her but don't mention that her sister is dead.

This film is written and directed by Joshua Marston who makes his debut and it's a very impressive one in that his script doesn't apologize for the actions of it's characters but instead wants to show to what measures these people from these poor countries will take to try and better themselves and their family. I personally don't recall a film that shows how these "Mules" bring drugs into this country and one cannot help but be fascinated and at the same time appalled by the scenes where these young girls learn how to swallow over 20 vials at a time. These are truly riveting moments to watch in this intriguing film and at the core is a career making performance by Moreno. This is her first film and was discovered by Marston during an audition and she definitely has a strong screen presence and seems to have a natural persona about her that translates well, especially in this film where her character is supposed to be naive about what she's doing. Like "Dirty Pretty Things" this is a look at a culture that we really never see in films and Marston presents his story in a gritty and realistic manner and with the strong performance by newcomer Moreno this is powerful film to watch.
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Engrossing drama expertly directed and memorably acted
jdesando17 August 2004
In Catholic school we prayed the `Hail Mary, Full of Grace' ending with `Pray for us sinners, now and forever. Amen.' In `Maria Full of Grace' writer/director Joshua Marston (`Bus to Queens') takes the flip side of `Midnight Express'(1978) to create a cinema verite version of distaff `mules' who don't suffer the outrages of `Express's' Turkish prison but who do endure one of the most harrowing depictions of drug smuggling ever involving innocents. For those young women `Hail Mary' seems not enough to help.

Maria from Colombia (gifted newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno) agrees to transport drugs in her stomach to New York. Marston develops the story meticulously to show her as a talented 17 year old who sees beyond her village, slacker boyfriend, and dependent family to a better life than cutting thorns off roses at a local business. She is the rose who agrees, somewhat unbelievably given the dangers, to be a mule.

In one of the only Catholic iconographic moments, she ingests small bags of cocaine as if they were communion. Marston's detailed eye is not so much interested in religious motifs as he is in fully detailing the characters' lives in impoverished Colombia, the claustrophobic flight with other mules, and Maria's gymnastics in the rest room (Those of us who have tried to perform any intricate movement in these little prisons know what I'm saying). The scene in New York with wary customs agents is a classic of terror and cool, played with superlative understatement by Moreno. Her difficulties in the big city are less believable by the realistic standards Marston has already set.

`Maria' could be seen as primer for muling, so carefully crafted are the details, or an allegory about how poverty and crime corrupt the best and the brightest. Most of all, it is simply engrossing drama expertly directed and memorably acted. `Midnight Express' might scare the bejesus out of you, but `Maria Full of Grace' will cure you of any desire to forget your night prayers in favor of certain damnation. In `Proverbs' is found the parallel: `So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.'
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Best Colombian film to date.
mrincodi28 January 2005
Well, I think this is a great movie. It brilliantly depicts the real situation of a Colombian girl. For me, a Colombian, what is really touching is her condition through the movie. María has this problem with her work and her boss, these other two with her boyfriend, this other one with her sister, this other one with her mother, this other one with her money, the other one with her wishes to become stable, this other one with her girlfriend, and then she is about to have a thousand more with this people of the drug traffic business and with the traffic itself! To have a thousand problems at the same time is, sadly, not an exception, but the usual situation of the average Colombian! I mean, we strongly tend to have disorganized lives, with three, four, five concerns at a time, struggling and wandering through life with them. We are not organized, as people of the developed countries are accustomed to be. We always have problems. I'd say we love to have them. And we love to dig on other people's problems. It gives us a false sense of importance, as of being the stars of our own story.

Other typical Colombian attitudes are very well presented. One of them is impudence. For example, look at María's sister. She didn't do more than to ask for things! And, even further, she COMPLAINS!! Typical. Or Blanca's attitude. She pretends and pretends that she is very angry with Marìa, telling her offensive things, but she follows her everywhere! I can't tell you how typical this coward, illogical and annoying attitude is. Other one is to lie and to lie until everything falls by its own weight. Of course, all of these are generalizations. There are a lot of Colombian people who is not like that. But I am talking about what Colombian attitudes are depicted at the movie, and these really are. There are other good too, like the force to fight for what you want and to dream of progress, the cooperation and heart, the love for family, the piety, etc.

The movie is refreshing and free of gags and clichés. Well, actually it is very disturbing sometimes. But it is real. Like movies like "Ladri di biciclette", "Before Sunset" or "Lost in Translation" one can surely affirm that nothing of what happens of this movie could not have happened in real life. And there is nothing more moving than real life.

The story is great. The acting of Catalina is great. Actually, she doesn't look like acting. It's too real. Flaws? Well, the music is awful. Bogotá is not a land of salsa (besides, the only he ugliest parts of the city are shown). And the acting of particularly two other actors is bad, too. There are moments where the bad guys appear very much more compassionate than what they are in real life? But let's say that this is not a flaw.

With this movie, as with he magnificent Cidade de Deus, a quote, I think that from Tolstoi, keeps on being present and relevant: "If you want to be universal, write about your little village".

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Pleasant, but by far not as moving/provocative as I expected
Stefan11 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This movie has its beauty, the acting was very good and the photography was nice. Somehow the scenes are interesting and the way they were filmed is refreshingly unspectacular.

However, my problem with this movie is that it does not go under the skin and is not really provocative. The protagonists come from relatively decent environments (with some choices) and there were a lot of corners in the plot were they were outright very lucky and things could have turned much worse for them.

Sorry, but if this depiction of a serious problem was meant to be provocative / an eye-opener I am taken aback by the ideal Barbie world some people live in. I don't want to spoiler here, but at some points in the movie it was outright comical to see how well things turn out for them.

Seriously, if you would show this movie to some kids in Columbia they would flock to this job in droves with the hope to have as much luck and good perspectives as Maria.

As said before, I would still recommend it as an entertaining movie with some good craftsmanship, but don't expect to be deeply moved unless you have lost contact with the real world.
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High impact social drama
Ron in LA25 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Humorless but powerful social drama starring Catalina Moreno as a brave but necessity-driven Colombian girl who is exploited as a "mula" by drug smugglers. The film is a well-researched and thorough exposition of how poor Colombians are abused by a scheme in which they put their lives at risk by carrying drugs in their stomachs. It has a foreign-film feel, but was actually written and directed by American white-boy Josh Marston.

The first third of the movie drags us through the pathetic circumstances of family necessity that push newly-pregnant Moreno to the big city in hope of earning some cash. Next comes an extended second act in which we are mercilessly exposed to the graphic detail of how obscene amounts of the potentially lethal contraband are gagged down by the mules (think Fear Factor without the music). The third act involves the actual smuggling, which goes in to traditionally structured cinematic conventions of crisis and conflict.

Two things sweeten what would otherwise be a bitter pill, long on importance and short on entertainment. One is the fact that nearly every frame includes Moreno's pretty face, and we are ultimately encouraged by her resourcefulness and courage. The other is the inspiring presence of real-life hero Orlando Tobon ("Don Fernando"), whose real-world travel agency and charitable efforts on behalf of the mules become the centerpiece of the film's American segments.

Movie snobs like moi will consider Maria time well spent, but don't go expecting a war-on-drugs action-adventure shoot-em-up.
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Ben_Deutsch30 August 2004
I enjoyed this film. Though it was kind of slow in the beginning, (but somehow not too slow) kind of predictable (actually only towards the end) and kind of exaggerated, (only once as well).

I must say, that this film was so well made and the script and acting is so captivating that I on several occasions actually felt my heart beating furiously. And, there were parts where i was utterly repulsed, all feelings that were supposed to come through.

I read in someone else's comment that they felt as if they were watching a documentary, and I must agree. It is an interesting idea, considering that the way that all the characters are portrayed. The script is unbiased, its almost as if the actors sway your sympathy.

Excellent movie, just leaves you wanting more, and i would have preferred a more non-cliche, concrete ending.
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