Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Maria Full of Grace (2004) ****

Written (in Spanish, with English subtitles) and directed by Joshua Marston. Photography, Jim Denault. Editing, Anne McCabe & Lee Percy. Production design, Monica Marulanda & Debbie De Villa. Music, Jacobo Lieberman & Leonardo Heiblum. Producer, Paul Mezey. An HBO Films & Fine Line release. 101 minutes. R. Cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria), Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied López, Jhon Alex Toro,Patricia Rae, Wilson Guerrero, Jaime Osorio Gómez, Orlando Tobón (Don Fernando).

A striking, superior, unusual combination of direction (Mr.Marton’s first feature), acting (notably by Ms. Moreno, also in her first film) but also by the supporting cast, camera-work, design, and on and on.

Maria is a beautiful, appealing 17-year-old who lives and works in a village close to Bogota. She labors in a large area which grows roses for export. Specifically, her main task (shared by a host of women) is to remove to remove the flowers’ thorns. It all takes place in a rather dehumanizing sort of assembly line. (Cinephiles might connect this to the assembly lines of the 1930’s movies Rene Clair’s --in “A Nous la Liberte—and Chaplin’s “Modern Times.”)

One day, Maria who is often scolded by her immediate boss, quits her job. She is a free soul who dares her boy-friend to follow her in the scaling of a building. And she announces to him that she is pregnant. The young man offers to marry her but she refuses, scornfully. The point here, clear but not hammered, is that the young man is a boyfriend but not a lover. A clever approach.

Maria lives with – and mostly supports—her grandmother, mother, older sister and the latter’s baby. She needs income, so takes off for Bogota where she might get work as a housemaid. Earlier, at some sort of dance hall or party (with nice music!) she had met a new fellow.

They meet again on the road to Bogota. He gives her a ride to the city on his motorcycle. And—I’m cutting to the chase-- he puts her in contact with the leader of a highly organized outfit which uses “mules” to load up sealed heroin pellets (as in micro-condoms) into their stomachs, and sneak them into the USA. This. she is told, will net her $4,000 per trip. A fortune. Hard to resist.

I will not describe Maria’s reaction, temptation and agreement.

Nor will I speak of the “sophisticated” procedures in the backrooms of a pharmacy. Or of Lucy, the handsome girl who’s been twice a “mule” and who also indoctrinates Maria. She soon gets “trained” and her body hosts 62 packets of heroin.

On her way by plane to New Jersey, Maria sees her best friend, the unglamorous Carla, Lucy, and another mule. The visual details are superbly eloquent as silence prevails. Arriving in the U.S.A, everyone goes through thorough procedures by the Customs people. (They had arrested 145 mules in the previous year.) The authorities are not drawn as dragons, in fact there’s something quite humane about them. They are pros, and most suspicious of Maria, but don’t go all the way: “We don’t x-ray pregnant women.” They do make one arrest however.

From here on out the plot thickens as some heroin thugs take the three girls to a miserable place; unpleasant things (to put it mildly) occur, including a terrible event. Maria and one of her companions seek shelter among the Colombians in New York. The newcomers, for reasons I cannot disclose, get in touch with the savvy but non-heroin-trafficker Don Fernando (Orlando Tobon.) A fascinating character who plays himself, this gentleman, has a one-room travel agency where he is also an income tax consultant. Mr. Tobon came to New York in 1968, became a respected member of the Colombian community, and, among other accomplishments, over the years repatriated to Columbia over 200 mules who had died from their loads of pellets.

The movie, though played by actors, is an amazingly strong, precise, touching and suspenseful documentary -- a work of total veracity that most emphatically make it a must-see. Every minute counts, every occurrence or detail is powerful, believable and unadorned. We get totally convincing acting – from A to Z and from experienced players as well as from total rookies.

Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria), in her mostly quiet way ought to be a model to the bimbos of Hollywood. And the film’s authenticity makes most “realistic” movies or even horror flicks look like frauds.

The film was voted “best” by the Sundance Festival audience; Ms. Moreno (and Charlize Theron in “Monster”) as best actresses in the 2004 Berlin Festival, plus a Best Director special award for Joshua Marston ; 3 top prizes at the Deauville Fest of American cinema; and many other prizes for the movie, its writer-director, its star.

I wonder why Mr. Marston, who calls himself “a nice Jewish boy” came to call his movie what is the Catholic prayer Hail Mary (or Ave Maria). I can’t explain it, but it does fit in an odd way. It is, in one sense, a very sophisticated choice, and from the little I can find about Mr. Marston, I believe he is a sophisticate. He was born in Los Angeles, lived there, went to film school and resided in New York City as well as in several key cities in Europe. From the few facts I found about his life, he sounds like a strange person to make “Maria.” Yet he scores a 10 out of 10.

The picture’s shooting locations, by the way, are not just N.Y, New Jersey, Bogota but also (I suspect, in a major way) Amaguacha in Ecuador.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel