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 cliché.
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.