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Maria Full of Grace

Released 2004. Director: Joshua Marston

WHEN YOU'RE POOR YOU MIGHT JUST DO ANYTHING FOR MONEY. The temptation is great for 17-year-old Maria, who lives in a small town in Colombia where livelihood options are scarce, the future is limited and what little money she earns can barely sustain her family above poverty level.

Thus sets the premise for Joshua Marston’s skilfully assured maiden directorial effort. Maria Full of Grace is about a young woman’s attempt to break out of the poverty spiral in her community and her dreams of a brand new life. Most of all, it’s about her harrowing experience as a drug mule.

First-time actress Catalina Sandino Moreno gives a promising performance as Maria, who would risk death in her refusal to take life’s curve balls lying down. She’s innocent, rebellious, brave and foolish all at once. Catalina gives her character angst and bitterness at her surroundings, strength and courage in her life-altering decisiveness. Her performance goes beyond the boundaries of script construct, blooming into a fully-fledged creation instead of a simplistic, clichéd character in a conventional drug-bust drama.

Marston handles with a simple yet effective direction the sequence where Maria crosses the point of no return. We see how the heroin pellets are prepared carefully and proficiently, each one waiting to slide down Maria’s throat. This is not a scene for those with a poor gag reflex. Watching Maria struggle to swallow the pellets is almost like sticking a finger at the back of your throat.

Then Maria makes you worry if she might suffer the fatal consequences should any of the pellets rupture inside her, and what terrible fate might befall her family if she accidentally “loses” one.

With the first half of the movie having laid the setting, the second half takes on a suspenseful trajectory as Maria lands in New York, not the tourist she pretends to be but a drug smuggler. By then, we have grown to sympathise with Maria and understand her reason for putting herself in jeopardy that we clasp our hands praying she would not get caught. From now on, Maria’s story is a brand new page to be written, or smudged, as the case may be.

Upon landing in the US, she gets pulled out for random questioning by the customs officers. She doesn’t speak English, and they are suspicious of how a poor country girl like Maria can afford the plane ticket. In other words, they are convinced that she’s a drug mule. Meanwhile, as Maria is held for questioning, the pellets are swimming in digestive juices in her stomach, churning with anxiety while the clock ticks on… The drama is only just beginning.

Marston could have taken the easy way out, follow conventional scripting and build up expected dramatic devices for cheap entertainment. Maria is busted and she gets thrown in jail. Or maybe she escapes capture, gets into trouble with the drug lords. More action ensues.

But no, it doesn’t happen this way. Marston, who also wrote the screenplay, has chosen instead to follow through Maria’s ‘miscarriage’, so to speak, with a deeper psychological edge. What follows is a series of turns precipitated by Maria’s choices. Her story is motivated by real concerns, and it gives us a meaningful look into the mind of a frightened young woman on the cusp of a terrifyingly uncertain future.

Ultimately, Maria Full of Grace is about choices. Important, painful, irreversible choices people make in life. Maria’s life is in her own hands. Every moment, every turn, every decision, will continue to take her where she’s never been.

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