“Maria Full of Grace” is a work of fiction, but one can be forgiven for mistaking it for a documentary. The film, about a teenage girl from Colombia who becomes a “mule,” or courier, for a drug cartel, is so thick with detail that I kept thinking it must have been written by someone intimately familiar with the drug trade. A former drug smuggler? A crusading Latin American journalist? Turns out I was wrong. “Maria” was written and directed by Joshua Marston, a 35-year-old ex-news photographer from Williamsburg, N.Y.
Before penning the script, Marston interviewed a number of Colombian immigrants living in Queens. His film is the result of old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting?an increasingly rare occurrence in the memoir-soaked age we live in today?and it is his reportorial approach that gives the movie such power. Maria may not be a real person, but, as the film’s poster suggests, the film is “based on a thousand true stories.”
The film begins in a small town outside of Bogota, where Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno, pictured right) works in a flower factory removing thorns from roses. Before long, she is fed up with the drudgery and long hours and decides to quit her job. Her decision complicates her sister’s life, who relies on Maria’s paycheck to pay for food and medicine for her baby. Marrying her boyfriend would solve some of Maria’s problems, but it is obvious that she doesn’t want to become another poor pregnant housewife. So when a stranger offers her as a lucrative job as a mule, she takes it, seeing it as her only chance to escape the poverty that surrounds her.
What follows is a grisly account of how young Colombian women are used to smuggle drugs into the United States. Maria is asked to swallow 60 to 70 grape-sized balls of heroin wrapped in rubber. She is told that if one breaks, she can die; and that if she doesn’t deliver all of the drugs, she and her family will be held responsible. So when, on board a plane bound for New York, she accidentally passes a few of the rubber balls in the bathroom, she knows what she has to do. Marston wisely doesn’t show Maria swallowing the balls again. A shot of her washing them in the sink and covering them with toothpaste is powerful enough.
Things don’t go as planned when Maria arrives in the U.S., though I won’t go into too much detail. (I don’t want to give away the ending.) She winds up staying in a Queens neighborhood that is not much different from her hometown; the apartments are cramped and tortillas are sold from carts on the streets. These scenes deftly illustrate why the U.S. is so attractive to immigrants. In addition to offering them a chance to escape poverty, America allows immigrants to bring their homeland with them, in ways both large and small.
The film’s title is, of course, taken from the “Hail Mary” and the movie poster shows Maria about to swallow a pellet of heroin, an obvious reference to the reception of Communion. But the film itself makes little mention of religion. It seems Marston chose the title simply because it sounded catchy. Of course, he isn’t the first director to use religion as window dressing. Francis Ford Copolla did it, albeit it to great effect, in the famous baptism scene at the end of “The Godfather.” But it seems to me that Marston missed a real opportunity here. Catholicism is vital to lives of Colombian immigrants, including, one would imagine, those who smuggle drugs to help their family escape poverty. Exploring how someone like Maria uses her religion to survive could have been fascinating.
Still, Marston should be commended for writing about someone other than himself. The old adage “write what you know” has become gospel in Hollywood, and it’s refreshing to find someone willing to explore someone else’s experiences?especially someone who would not otherwise be heard. Marston’s movie is obviously born of some sort of social conscience?a rarity among summer movies?though thankfully he is not a heavy-handed moralist. He knows that the best way to draw attention to people like Maria is to simply tell their story. Marston’s next project is about people in rural Tennessee. He wrote it after traveling the South for weeks, interviewing people he met. If he is anywhere near as successful telling their stories as he is Maria’s, it should be a provocative and unexpected experience.