Like a super-concentrated plot thread from Traffic, only without parallel story lines for pressure-relieving diversion, Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace sheds modest but intense light on the shadowy underbelly of globalization in the narcotics trade. Yet despite a reliance on the kind of “ripped from today’s headlines” premise that keeps Dick Wolf in silk jammies, Marston brings a potentially sensational subject—Latin American “mules” who sneak opiates into the U.S. in their digestive tracts—down to street level without resorting to gaga earnestness or cynical attempts at oversimplifying the inherent complexities. It’s a remarkably assured and humane feature debut.
The film follows Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a moody, charming 17-year-old malcontent in a rural Colombian backwater who wrestles with her burgeoning disenchantment. She balks at the demands of her struggling family, complacent boyfriend, and demeaning job in one of the region’s low-wage flower plantations; when she discovers she’s pregnant, Maria falls in with a devilish Bogotá drug runner (the excellent Jhon Alex Toro) who hustles her into a heroin-encumbered spot on the next flight to Newark. Lucy (Guilied López), a veteran mule with a sib in Jackson Heights, tutors the apprehensive newcomer, but any notion that their work is easy money is dispelled by the painful, protracted scenes of Maria ingesting (and, midflight, re-ingesting) the contraband, and her stateside efforts to, er, deliver the goods. Lucy’s handoff is tragically botched, and Maria and her unwitting sidekick (Yenny Paola Vega) flee to Queens.
Maria’s second half, which Marston could easily have pumped up with perfunctory exploitation of the story’s suspense-flick underpinnings, is instead richly revelatory and unexpectedly moving. While only occasionally stooping to telenovela-esque melodramatics, particularly in the bits involving Lucy’s grief-stricken sister (Patricia Rae), the film’s New York passage illuminates the true nature of Maria’s inscrutable impulsiveness. Here, it becomes clear that her restlessness isn’t merely borne of a desire to accumulate consumerism’s anesthetizing, perpetually out-of-reach baubles, but from a hunger for dignity and an outlet for her essential decency. This is hinted at in the slightly dreamy, too idyllic Colombia sequences, but only when Maria hits Roosevelt Avenue does it become plain that she has agency to burn.
The film’s success owes much to the New York–based Marston’s deft weaving of sociology, anthropology, and journalism; his curiosity and intelligence are obvious in every frame of the film, yet they’re tempered by a focus and suspicion of sentimentality that are unusual for a tyro. This also stops him short of being just another neorealist wannabe, and keeps Maria from devolving into an El Norte–style white-liberal-guilt tongue-clucker.
But the film really belongs to Moreno, whose untutored immediacy, impeccable restraint, and watchful reticence (she truly smiles only once, and it’s like seeing a rare flower bloom) underscore Maria’s inner turmoil without making the character into a mawkishly soulful or smirkily postmodern madonna. It’s to Marston’s credit that he’s artist enough to get out of Moreno’s way and let her carry his movie.