Maria Full of Grace (and a few other things)

In one of the subtlest yet stomach-churning bodily function-driven scenes in recent cinema, a young girl hurries to an airplane bathroom and quickly poops out two thumb-sized pellets of heroin into her hand. The girl, 17-year-old Maria from Colombia, is on her way to New York as a first time drug “mule.” She’s got 60 more of these pellets ingested in her stomach. What’s she to do now? Let’s just say she can’t exactly put the drugs in her purse.

In most films about drug trafficking we envision Tony Montana in a white suit carrying a briefcase in one hand and an Uzi in the other. It’s all machine guns and mansions, drug stings on drug czars, chainsaws in the bathtub. The debut from U.S. director Joshua Marston takes us way down the ladder to the bottom rung, known as the “mule,” and it’s no less fascinating and risky than what Hollywood has thrown at the “War on Drugs” for three decades now.

At the beginning of “Maria Full of Grace,” Maria is toiling away in a flower plantation, de-thorning roses by the bundle. Afterwards her measly paycheck is given directly to her family. If life wasn’t harsh enough, she is impregnated by an apathetic boyfriend who hasn’t the guts to climb a roof with her. Fortunately, this is all delicately balanced and careful not to fall into the down-on-her-luck plot hole. These scenes work as a colorful Viewfinder for the audience to experience life as a youth in Colombia (even though it was shot in Ecuador), similar to what “Y Tu Mama Tambien” did for Mexico.

As Maria is eventually pushed (by herself no doubt) into the life of a mule, a few things don’t happen. Most notably we never once see a gun, which is astounding considering the film’s premise. There is not a single violent scene. Instead, Marston focuses on what he calls “emotional violence”- the manipulation and inner workings of the Colombian drug trade. The details are based on factual evidence of real-life mules and drug officers. This emotional violence is more or less the pressure to deliver under the stress and physical danger of carrying a few kilos inside of you… through Customs, let’s not forget.

The film has been racking up awards: the Audience Award at Sundance, Best Actress and Best First Film at Berlin, and a slew of others. Marston and beautiful lead actress, Catalina Sandina Moreno, have been touring with the film and were nice enough to stop by the preview at our own Hollywood Theatre last Monday for an half hour Q & A. That little visit says a lot about how much the director and the actress believe in their film and its message. Though they’ve already put years of heart and attention into “Maria,” they’d like to make sure their audience gives two hours of theirs.