Ambiguous Morals Are Trendy: Maria Full of Grace -- by Lauren Saccone
"Maria Full of Grace"
Directed by Joshua Marston
With Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega and Guilied Lopez
Maria Full of Grace was not a movie I was particularly interested in seeing. A film about a seventeen year-old girl who traffics drugs? It sounds like a bad episode of a teen drama. And critics in general have a habit of applauding movies that tackle 'serious' issues, while ignoring their artistic merits. It makes them seem multicultural, I guess. However, I am happy to admit that in this case I was completely wrong.
From the opening shots of Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) going to work at the flower factory, you know this is no light-hearted film. Set to the melancholy 'Los Caminos de la Vida,' this sets the tone of everything that is to follow. Maria is a smart, stubborn girl who does things her own way. After quitting her job due to an altercation with her boss, her family insists she find more work quickly. In a family made up exclusively of women, save for her sister's infant son, Maria has an obligation to bring in cash. Add to that the trauma of finding out she is pregnant by her loutish boyfriend, it seems as if Maria is being backed into a corner. Despite the time period, her world is pretty old fashioned. But Maria has her own ideas.
Instead of marrying her boyfriend or working another low-wage job, Maria decides to become a drug mule. This work consists of her ingesting large pellets of heroin, then flying to America to 'hand over' the merchandise. With her friend Blanco (Yenny Paola Vega) and fellow drug mule Lucy (Guilied Lopez), these young girls enter a world where they are only worth what they can carry. In a particularly difficult scene, Maria practices swallowing grapes whole in preparation of the heroin pellets she will have to ingest to earn her pay. The director wants to show you the challenges in the lives of these mules, and it works; you often find yourself wanting to gag for her.
But swallowing sixty-two pellets of heroin dipped in broth is not the end of her troubles. Maria must then endure quite possibly the most hellish airplane flight in history to the United States. Fully aware of her situation, and the ramifications of getting caught, this long plane ride just exacerbates her anxiety. Originally believing herself to be alone, she discovers that Lucy, Blanco, and another girl are all on the plane with her. This could be considered comforting, save for the fact that Lucy is violently sick. As if matters weren't stressful enough, what with trying to illegally get into America with heroin inside her, Maria has to go to the bathroom. After 'losing' the pellets, she is forced to once again return them to her stomach, in ways I'd rather not dwell on. This adds a remarkable level of tension to the film, heightened by the audience's anxiety over whether or not Maria will get caught. It is a bit hard to believe that no one on the plane notices several extremely nervous young women spending an inordinate amount of time around the restrooms. The music here is all sparse strings, allowing the scene to play up its own tension.
America does not solve her problems. Upon arrival, Maria and her friends are all separately taken into custody under suspicion of transporting drugs. Maria is saved from an X-Ray that would reveal the pellets only by her pregnancy. After being released, things go downhill. Two seedy guys take them to a questionable hotel to wait for the pellets to 'pass,' as Jon Wesley's 'Shake It Fa Me' makes it immensely clear that they are far from home. This goes on for two days. Then Lucy is taken away in the dead of night. Panicking, Maria flees to Lucy's older sister, all the while lying about Lucy's whereabouts and her own intentions. Finally, she has fellow Colombians around and the soundtrack returns to a more ethnic beat with 'Mi Primer Millon.' Yet even this has some American influence; Maria cannot go back.
Things reach a head when Maria and Blanco discover Lucy has died. Maria finally contacts the men they fled from, and even tries to get Lucy's money so her family can bury her with dignity. In the end, she gives them some of her own money. When Blanco finally goes back to Columbia, Maria chooses to stay in America for her child.
Maria's personal changes remain authentic, despite the director throwing every curve ball possible at his leading character. Her sympathy and kindness towards Lucy's family remains believable because she has her own interests in mind.
Her final decision to stay in America, played out against 'Yo No Quiero' (another American-produced song) has some rather questionable morals behind it. Although it is made clear by many characters that America is a better place for children, Maria is seventeen, pregnant, and an illegal immigrant with very limited funds. While you do want her to be happy and raise her child the best way possible, how happy will she and her offspring be there? No mention is ever given to the fact that Maria essentially abandons her family in Columbia; we are not supposed to care about them.
It appears the director wants everyone to go to America. That seems to be the only moral message behind this story. Of course, nobody wants the standard 'Don't do drugs' message -- we've certainly seen enough of that. But taking some sort of moral stance on his character's actions would have made a greater impact. Ambiguity is usually good, but not when it leads to lapses in common sense.
Writer/director Joshua Marston has made a very fine second feature, but he still has some work before I'll consider him talented. Although his writing is basically sound, save for my issues with the ending, his directing and cinematography leave much to be desired. At first the grainy, realistic camera work seems authentic. But Marston seems so intent on jumping in front of the camera and showing us how artistic he can be, he often forgets that the story should be the focus. If it were not such a good movie, this could be called 'masturbatory'. Many of the shots come from 'Filmmaking 101,' and those that don't usually don't work (did we really need constant shots of the pellets to remind us they were heroin?) There is no information on Marston's backgrond, but he seems too detached from his characters, making this film 'very good,' rather than brilliant.
All that being said, Moreno is so good that she makes me forgive the film its faults. At twenty-three, she has managed to create a brilliant, uncompromising character in Maria. She does not ask us to like Maria; instead, she demands we understand her, which is a far more difficult and rewarding experience. The whole film rests on her shoulders, and she carries it with ease. In fantastic support are Patricia Rae as Lucy's older sister, and Guilied Lopez as Lucy. Her end may be predictable (there are too many mentions of how much she wants to see her sister), but Lopez manages to make you suffer anyway. The only real sour note as far as acting is Blanco, who is the obligatory best friend you spend the whole movie wishing would either shut up or die.
But in the end, Maria Full of Grace is about finding grace. More than that, it is about finding the courage and will to survive. Whatever grace comes from that, Maria has surely found.