Maria Full of Grace is an emblematic and unflinching tale mixing the harsh drug trafficking with the nurturing of womanhood. The result is tragic and unforgettable.
Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a small town, Colombian 17-year-old. A headstrong young woman, she spends her days working in a flower plantation removing thorns from commercially farmed roses, taking back the money earned to her extended and impoverished family. Unexpectedly falling pregnant, and with a careless childhood innocence, she decides to give up her tedious job, nonchalant boyfriend Juan and village life and move to the city of Bogota to start fresh as a housemaid.
But local gangster Javier (Jaime Osorio Gomez) offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for Maria: an all expenses paid trip to New York City. But the apple isn’t as sweet as expected, for to get there she has to become a drug mule, swallowing rubber-wrapped pellets of heroin and dispelling her cargo with some black market dealers at the other end. If one of the capsules breaks inside her, she will die. If she gets caught by border police, she will be thrown into prison, sent back to Colombia with the risk of being killed. It’s a big risk, but the week’s work pays $5,000, a fee too appealing for any girl to resist. Maria decides to do it, and is angered when her tag-along best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) signs up as well.
Even with the religious allusions: a woman called Maria, carrying an unborn child and meddling with thorny roses, writer-director Joshua Marston’s feature debut never relies on convoluted theatrical dramatics to pull on our heartstrings. Heavily researched, the film never polemically distinguishes the good, bad and evil qualities of the trade and it’s likely pawns, instead presenting the illegal ordeal in a brutally simplistic fashion, with Maria being the fresh-faced subject who will gingerly guide us through.
Like the socio-realism films of Brit Ken Loach, Maria Full of Grace looks at torrid times of impoverished working classes without ever feeling the need to romanticise them. Whilst we may feel infuriated by some of Maria’s bad choices, it is only because we develop a great admiration to the naive, capricious young woman trying to get out of her lowly situation. Enduring the awkward transitional stage between idle adolescent and responsible adult, Moreno conveys much of Maria’s plight with distinguished minimalism and gestures. It’s a wide-eyed, gutsy, and ultimately graceful performance which puts a face to the corrupt world of drug trafficking. Hard to stomach, but worth persevering.