Maria Full of Grace

Containing scenes of undeniable power and an excellent central performance Maria Full of Grace is a solid but ultimately unremarkable portrayal of an individual caught up in drug trafficking.

Containing scenes of undeniable power and an excellent central performance Maria Full of Grace is a solid but ultimately unremarkable portrayal of an individual caught up in drug trafficking.

One of the big surprises when this year�s Oscar nominations were announced was the inclusion in the Best Actress category of Catalina Sandino Moreno, an unknown Columbian actress, for her performance as the eponymous Maria in Maria Full of Grace. Despite being filmed almost entirely in Spanish it is actually the feature film debut of an American, writer-director Josh Marston and was funded by HBO (the US cable channel). On the one hand it is a bold attempt to examine the drug trade from a different perspective yet on the other it never really catches fire and suffers from the occasional lapse into clich�.

Maria is a 17 year old working in a flower plantation near Bogota, where she has to strip the thorns of roses. After becoming frustrated and then fired from her dead end job she discovers that there is money to be made from becoming a drug �mule� (or smuggler). Although at first apprehensive she soon becomes inducted into the methods of swallowing tablets of cocaine wrapped in condoms. In the most gripping scenes we see Maria experience the gruelling ordeal of flying to New York knowing that if one of the tablets breaks she faces likely death and that, even if she makes it, customs officers could easily arrest her. When she finally gets to New York a fellow mule is killed and she seeks help from the Columbian community in Queens, but her problems are far from over.

Boasting a slew of awards and nominations from various film festivals around the world it is reasonable to expect a lot from Maria Full of Grace. In some respects it does deliver. Moreno gives a remarkably assured performance for her first film role and Marston�s attention to detail is impressive. Shot in a style more reminiscent of a documentary than a feature, it has a raw and refreshingly non-judgemental feel to it. Instead of the swarthy drug running villains who populate Hollywood action films we get to see the nightmarish ordeal that those lower down the drug chain have to endure. One highly effective scene, where Maria has to practice swallowing tablets using plums, is hard to even look at.

Yet, despite its undoubted qualities Maria Full of Grace is ultimately an underwhelming experience. The main problem lies with a lack of context. Unlike Traffic (or the superb Channel 4 TV series that film was based on), there is little explanation the drug trade in general and the wider issues that lead to Maria to become a mule. What we are left with is a fairly routine coming of age story that just happens to be about a young girl caught up in the lower rungs of the drugs trade. As it is, the story is powerful in places but with the focus almost entirely Maria it leaves you wondering at what the film might have been. The ending only compounds the problem, with an all too familiar and predictable conclusion.


The official HBO site has all the details about the film as well as a link to buy the Region 1 DVD. Zoe Williams of The Guardian has an interesting interview with Moreno and writer-director Joshua Marston speaks to BBC Collective here about the genesis of the film. He also has an extensive interview with OffOffOff here. On a wider level the BBC have a slightly dated but still informative mini-site on the global drugs trade.

> Official Site
> IMDb Link
> Watch the Trailer

One reply on “Maria Full of Grace”

Despite your well written review, you really miss the mark on a few points.

It was COMPLETELY unnecessary to provide more detail on the drug trade in general. The film was about Maria and her story.

As far as your reference to the missing wider issues that lead Maria to become a mule. That issue was covered. The woman lived in poverty with no chance of making money in her town. It was mentioned that her only option was the flower factory that she just quit. Another option was being a maid in the big city. The guy motorcycle (sorry forgot his name) mentions that he sees her as more than just a maid and she said nothing. This was silent agreement. The opening scene of the movie she climbs a building that her simple boyfriend was disinterested in climbing. You were supposed to interpret that this woman wanted more out of life than her surroundings could provide. That is why she became a mule. There were no wider issues left out.

No, this was not a fairly routine story about a young girl’s coming of age caught up with the lower rungs of the drug trade. This was the story of a person born into poverty that wanted more out of life and was willing to do almost anything to get it.

I think you also miss the mark on your critism of the ending. You comment that it is predictable and familiar. Movies have pretty much covered every topic there possibly is yet there it is how it is covered that makes the difference. For instance, love has been covered so many times. But there can still be a good love scene or movie if it is done in an interesting manner.

The ending here was so powerful in it’s subtlely and realness. There were no smiles, no happiness when she turned around to come back. But that is how it should be as someone in her place will face a lot of challenges after leaving the airport. I think a big budget movie would have set her up with nice handsome rich American so the majority of movie goers would feel good that Maria would be safe, loved and taken care of.

Maria did say she missed Colombia and wanted to go back and was told by the pregnant woman friend (Sorry, again forgot the character’s name) that she had felt the same but stayed in NY to make a better life for her children and that Maria would do the same. That’s exactly what happened. Predictable? Maybe.

I thought of my parents who emigrated to the US legally knowing no English with no contacts here just to make a better life for their children. It really touched me when she turned around and again how subtle/real the scene was.

I recommended the film to some Colombian friends of mine and was suprised that they didn’t like it. But they told me that they were Colombian and lived that experience and did not want to be reminded of it. It was too real for them. They told me they like movies to be an escape complete with explosions & heroes who beat the villians & save the world & get the pretty girl at the end. It seems to me that a lot of reviewers needed that too from this film but thankfully it was not provided.

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