Cinema Signal:

Loyal Soldiers in the Cocaine Kingdom:
Tales of Drugs, Mules, and Gunmen
. "Maria Full of Grace" (aka "Maria, Llena Eres de Gracia")

If I ever saw a movie that better demonstrated the possibility of creating riveting drama on a low budget, depending on no exaggeration of character or CGI effects, I can't remember what it was. This is a story whose fascination level rises with each new development and so tightly wraps you into the dangers that a vulnerable young girl takes on, you may come out of it thinking you've had the experience.

Maria Alvarez' (Catalina Sandino Moreno) story starts prosaically enough. She's a discontented youth, a 17-year old girl in rural Columbia and the primary, if not the sole, breadwinner for her family. In this small town in the hills north of the big city of Bogota, jobs are scarce and she's fortunate to have her production line job in the industrial rose plantation, stripping thorns from rose stems. It's dull, repetitive work, the boredom of which she shares with her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega).

Which makes it all the more difficult that she can't spend her hard-earned wages on her own needs. She understands and accepts that her income means survival for her grandmother, mother, sister Diana (Johanna Andrea Mora) and Diana's baby, but when mom demands that she pay for the baby's medical needs while Diana stays home, Maria resents how everyone considers it to be her sole obligation.

She (and we) sense that something unjust and disproportionate is being asked of her and sypathize when she rebels and refuses to accede to mom's demands any longer, especially as she, herself, is pregnant. A disagreement with her boss over too many excuses ends in her dismissal. Boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero) is little comfort even though he proposes a marriage of need when she discloses her condition to him, the father. Maria, however, won't be a wife with such a sorry dude.

Desperate to improve her circumstances, she plans a trip to Bogota to look for work. At a weekend party on the plaza, she meets hip motorcyclist Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro) who offers her a ride and the prospect of a "cool", well-paying job. He puts her in contact with the head man of a gang that employs "mules". Not four-legged beasts of burden you find on the farm but, rather, people who carry a very different burden -- plastic pellets of heroin -- in their stomachs -- past U.S. customs agents at American airports.

Each pellet weighs 10 grams. Each is 4.2 cm long and 1.4 cm wide. Mules swallow from 25 to 50 of them at time. The more they swallow and deliver, the more they earn.

When Maria agrees to it, the intentions of the story become clear and throw a lock on your attention like few movies do. The real world fades from consciousness and, as Maria enters the training and commitments of the operation you couldn't be more spellbound if you were witnessing a death row inmate being prepared for the gas chamber. Of course, I'm describing my own level of fascination, but the theatre was so quiet, it occurred to me that famed guitarist Andres Segovia (1893-1987) would have been overjoyed to play his quietest etude.

The dramatic device here recalls those moments in horror films when the vulnerable heroine ventures into the dark corridor of the haunted house. In your mind you cry out, "Don't. Don't go there!" and you shudder in your seat as the foolish girl puts herself within reach of the demons. But this horrific adventure is couched in reality, multiplying its gripping power. After setting us up to be emotionally fastened to this poor girl, we are shown in painful detail the potential horror she is obligating herself to: the physical training techniques, the pellet-making equipment, the uncompromising agreement with the cartel, and the sheer danger to one's body. These are the lengths people will go to in order to subvert law enforcement and convert drugs to cash.

It's even more compelling, I would suggest, because this particular part of the drug trade is relatively unexplored territory. Most of us have heard of the practice but few have focused in on what it means in personal, physical terms, what level of desperation, what risks become acceptable. Who are these people that trust their lives to the integrity of plastic and insult their bodies with something so alien? When it's someone like Maria who joins this narco-traffic you may, as I did, become magnetized by the painstaking elaboration in the preparation and procedure that could so easily end in serious consequence or tragedy.

This is a reality show with something awful and prevalent for us to ponder while we hope some kind of message reaches the addicts, whose support of the drug trade ensures these acts of desperation.

Second time writer-director, Joshua Marston, ("Bus to Queens," 1999) has hit on a subject that mesmerizes with timeliness and natural tension. He obviously understood the importance of developing the audience's caring about his main character, which he goes about with purposeful effect, and in casting the part to convey a high level of appeal.

Moreno, in her first major film role, plays Maria with such natural resolve and dignity that she holds us captive to every step of danger and discovery she goes through. Her lack of affectation or exaggeration makes for an adhesive attachment, an attainment every actor dreams of. The degree of concern you feel for her is the key to the effect the film will have on you. To me and those around me, it came with considerable force. The supporting cast is up to the mark and technical values are everything they need to be.

"Maria Full of Grace" proves that high drama can be achieved without high budgets. Its effectiveness and standard of honesty merited it Sundance and Berlin Film Festival awards, which is likely to put Marston on solid footing with international cinema audiences and, if there's an ounce of wisdom in Hollywood, a studio offer or two.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria Alvarez
A candidate for mulehood

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