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A Problem Like Maria 

Long ago, Alfred Hitchcock mused on the power of cinema to make audiences identify with its focal characters. In his classic Psycho, we first sympathize with a young woman stealing $40,000 from her boss, and we sweat almost as much as she does when she's interrogated by a suspicious policeman. Later in the same film, we identify with that same woman's deranged murderer, a seemingly shy and defenseless young man who has killed his mother among several other victims. We cringe with him when he's questioned first by a private detective and later the young woman's fiance. At the height of the rebellious 1960s, we identified with legendary outlaws in Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Other examples abound. Now, first-time filmmaker Joshua Marston has employed the same identification strategy with Maria Full of Grace, his tense drama about a drug smuggler.

A winner of the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, Maria Full of Grace is the story of a small-town Colombian girl who agrees to smuggle heroin into the United States. Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a beautiful 17-year-old who works in a factory preparing flowers for export. Her largely mindless job pays meager wages and offers limited opportunities for advancement. She strips leaves and wraps bouquets, and she has to ask her boss for permission to use the restroom. Conditions at home are no less unhappy. She lives with her mother and her unemployed older sister who is a single parent with an infant. Maria is expected to contribute to the support of her sister and nephew, though the sister shows little in the way of gratitude.

Like teenagers wherever, Maria takes pleasure where she can find it, often in a sexual relationship with Juan (Wilson Guerrero), a boy she doesn't even much like. Her life changes dramatically and inevitably when she finds herself pregnant. Juan makes a tepid offer to marry, but his economic prospects are no better than hers, and both teens correctly sense that marriage would likely make their situation worse rather than better. That's when Franklin (John Alex Toro) offers to take her to Bogota where she can make "easy money." Franklin introduces her to a narcotics kingpin, who offers Maria $5,000 per trip to work as a drug mule.

What follows is, pun intended, hard to swallow. Maria's job consists of swallowing 60 latex pellets of heroin and carrying them in her stomach from Bogota to New York. Each of the pellets is about the size of a human thumb and, of course, must be swallowed whole. At first, she cannot control her gag reflex even to get them down. All along, she knows that should the latex break on even one of the pellets, she will die. Her situation is further complicated by the fact that she's suffering from morning sickness. But she dare not lose a single pellet. Should she, her suppliers warn, the consequences will be borne by her family. I will detail no further the unpleasant measures Maria is forced to take in hopes of delivering her cargo.

In filming this story, writer/director Marston is especially gifted in his casting choices. Most of the actors had little previous experience. For example, Orlando Tobon plays a public assistance agent for Colombian immigrants and is, in fact, a man who performs a service precisely like the character he portrays. Guilied Lopez and Yenny Paola Vega, who play Maria's fellow mules Lucy and Blanca, prove themselves very capable. And in the title role, Moreno is nothing less than a sensation. With no previous professional acting credits at all, she inhabits this role like an Actors Studio veteran and positions herself for end-of-the-year honors. At the Berlin Film Festival, she shared a best actress award with Charlize Theron in Monster. An Academy Award nomination seems at this early stage like a distinct possibility. Critically, Marston's script gave Moreno a complicated character to play. Maria is no simple child of crushing poverty victimized by fiendish drug lords. In fact, though her economic status is slight, her situation is notably short of desperate. She's able to dress reasonably well. The house she shares with her mother and sister is small but clean and bright and equipped with such amenities as indoor plumbing and a working refrigerator. In short, Marston isn't willing to overplay his hand and build an uncomplicated case for his heroine. Maria's opportunities are limited, but they are not nonexistent. She could have chosen a different route. But she's young and like most young people feels the dangers of life less than those more mature. She becomes a mule with eyes mostly wide open, the lure of quick cash too immediate and too irresistible to turn down. No doubt because of the lead character's complex nature, Maria Full of Grace lacks the emotional knockout punch of Gregory Nava's El Norte, but the current film is probably truer.

click to enlarge Worthy of an Academy Award nomination? Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace
  • Worthy of an Academy Award nomination? Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace
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