Maria Full of Grace
aka Maria llena eres de gracia
Top Ten List: #5 of 2004 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #3 of 2004 (world premieres)
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Director: Joshua Marston. Cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae, Fernando Velasquez, Orlando Tobon, Wilson Guerrero, John álex Toro, Virginia Ariza, Johanna Andrea Mora, Jaime Osorio Gómez, Rodrigo Sánchez Borhorquez, Selenis Leyva, Ed Trucco, Juan Porras Hincapie, Oscar Bejarano. Screenplay: Joshua Marston).

Photo © 2004 HBO Films/Fine Line Features
Joshua Marston's superior and shattering Maria Full of Grace manages two of the hardest tasks a narrative film can achieve. For one, it tells a story of personal misery, shot through with strong ideological overtones, without reducing its protagonist to a mere symbol or its screenplay to a simple polemic. Moreover, it is the rare film that starts out very strong and gets increasingly better. Add into the mix that this is the Brooklyn-based Marston's debut feature, directing a new actress in nearly every scene of an all-Spanish-language movie—none of the cultural backgrounds or political dilemmas represented in the movie reflect Marston's own biography or experience—and Maria Full of Grace seems all the more impressive. To top it all off, at the time of this writing, Maria trails only the mass-marketed martial arts opera Hero as the highest grossing foreign-language release of the year. When aesthetic dexterity, cultural sensitivity, and positive audience response unite this pointedly, staying at home just shouldn't be an option. This exquisite and profoundly humbling film is as good as they come.

Marston has reported that Maria Full of Grace was inspired by his acquaintance with a neighbor who came to Brooklyn as a drug "mule," the horribly but unavoidably cruel colloquialism for women, usually young girls, who are recruited to smuggle drugs into the U.S. (and, no doubt, elsewhere) by transporting them inside their bodies. These women swallow pellets hard-packed with cocaine and then travel with the drugs in their stomachs and intestines, praying mightily against the wise and watchful eyes of Customs officers or the fatal accident of a ruptured pellet. Marston's neighbor, who hailed from Colombia, intensively described her experience and introduced him to other women who had endured similar trials, and it occurred to me as I heard this story of Maria Full of Grace's origins that the anecdote sounds remarkably like the plot of William Styron's Sophie's Choice, where an aspiring writer in Brooklyn meets a woman still haunted by her encounters with worldly sadism and moral collapse. It would have been quite easy for Marston to frame his screenplay as the kind of second-degree sentimental awakening that we find so often in American movies, a pattern that Sophie's Choice exemplifies with particularly bad taste: a relatively sheltered American is romantically inspired to write, think, and grieve through his connection to a lady of sorrows, one who rightfully deserves to be the center of her own story, and whose tale would be much more powerful if not for the needless and opportunistic pressure of the narrative frame.

The integrity, then, of Maria Full of Grace is what strikes you first, and wondrously, it never dissipates. Told with direct, humane attention to the lead character and her world, in the language she speaks and in a subdued style that matches her emotions without stylizing them into melodrama, Maria begins in the sweatshop where Maria and hundreds of coworkers strip the thorns from cultivated roses and ship the flowers to parts of the world where niceties still apply. The workers' hands copiously pricked and welted, the air thick with chemicals that protect the flowers but stifle the employees, this is one of recent cinema's more potent evocations of Third World sweatshop labor, and already Marston lets the physical details of the environment tell the story, with a minimum of embellishment. Technique in Maria Full of Grace is always proficient without being remotely flashy. In keeping the story moving without resorting to histrionics, Marston is helped immeasurably by the great indie-film editor Anne McCabe, who also brought her disciplined, measured rhythms to the very different tones of Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me. The screenplay allows one vivid instance of narrative development inside the factory, when an ailing Maria, denied permission to go to the bathroom, throws up on her stack of roses and is forced to wash them clean. Mostly, though, the conditions in the factory speak for themselves, foreshadowing a film where hardship and immiseration are the norms of life, not the peaks, valleys, and turning-points of drama.

Through about the first half-hour of Maria Full of Grace, Marston guides us through the various layers of Maria's discontent: a necessary context for the film, perhaps, but also the slightest bit schematic. These are the only moments in Maria where we see clearly how the movie is constructing itself, and the connect-the-dots literalism with which Marston frames his premise smacks a little of Hollywood storytelling strategies. Still, we certainly empathize as we learn that Maria's mother and sister force her to work and then impound most of her salary in order to care for the sister's newborn. We are further moved to pity upon discovering that Maria herself, who has mocked the timidity of her boyfriend and goaded him for a little excitement, has become pregnant at the age of 17. Her boyfriend lamely offers to marry her, and she can't believe he would even consider it, much less expect her to accept, Catholic mores be damned. From these earliest scenes, the central performance of Catalina Sandino Moreno is another huge asset to the film, a stunning synthesis of indignant pride, cutting intelligence, and a silently expressed desperation. Maria is bitingly resentful of her own naïveté, and of the living conditions which keep her trapped and at the mercy of foolhardy peers and unreliable elders. Sandino Moreno hotwires all of these emotions straight into our minds. The basic serenity of her remarkable face is undone by the furious stares and fretful retreats of her large eyes, and the movie emanates directly from those shifting contrasts.

Given the intelligence and pragmatism that both the actress and her writer-director have imbued into Maria, it is important to clarify that she does know what she is doing, mostly, when she follows up on the solicitation of a local pusher to help out in his racket, make some money, and visit America. Marston does not frame the story as that of an innocent co-opted against her will, even though there is very little room for individual "will" in the overdetermined world of abject labor and familial despotism that Maria inhabits. She does exercise some choice, and we surmise that most of this Colombian village, especially the girls, are aware of this corrupt, dangerous, but lucrative alternative to their endless routines. In other words, Maria's decision amounts to a choice between two forms of enslavement, and while the film creates a space for us to judge Maria's decision, we also see it as an emergency gesture. We understand and empathize with Maria even if we don't approve her, a dialectic that should be common to narrative movies but very seldom is, and one that classes Marston's movie with a film like Boys Don't Cry, another parable about someone who is technically a criminal, except that the world's crimes against the individual are appreciably greater. (Though the ethical stakes are very different, this film also recalls Patty Jenkins' Monster in its subtle stylizations, its bone-deep grasp of cultural and regional milieus, and its brave and sagacious explorations of impossible choices made by desperate and, lest we forget, impoverished women.)

From the moment she elects to work as a mule, Maria's story could fall into any number of generic formulas; though the film has thus far resisted a Manichean ethics of good and evil, the cliff-edge of that reductive worldview suddenly looms on the horizon. The title and poster art of the film, where Maria's upturned face looks placidly at a drug pellet about to be passed into her mouth, invokes the obvious analogies of Catholic communion and religious martyrdom, which wouldn't seem incongruous to this story so much as they would necessarily flatten some of its other dimensions: the economic, the psychological, the interpersonal. Most obviously, the film could give itself over to a Pacifica Radio travelogue of misery, with the best ideological intentions rendering the unique demands of art rather irrelevant. This is, after all, a movie, and it's important that we glean something from its structure, its lighting, its cuts and sounds and angles, that we wouldn't from reading an exposé about Maria in the Op-Ed section of a newspaper.

I suspect that I will need more viewings of Maria Full of Grace in order to fully account for when, how, and why it passes from being a very good film to a great one, but for now, I would credit the film's deft ability to intensify almost every basic element in the story without intensifying all of them at once or in quite the same way. Sequence by sequence, the middle third of Maria Full of Grace takes narrative, stylistic, and even compositional departures that deepen the gravity of what we are watching and amplify our sense that it could resolve (or fail to resolve) in any number of ways. The first truly bravura passage of the movie comes when Maria meets Lucy (Guilied Lopez), already a two-time survivor of the drug-running enterprise, who has accessorized herself with the cosmetics, the clothes, and the vaguely anaesthetized affect that symbolize the rewards and costs of what she has been through. Lucy is both a glamorous and a cautionary figure for Maria, and there is a subtle surprise in how the story deviates from what we expect—a chronicle of a chauvinist business where young women are enlisted and shepherded by a clutch of mercenary men—and orbits instead around the complex bonds among the women who perform this labor. Around this time, we also learn that Blanca, Maria's puggish and frankly unlikable friend at the sweatshop, has also signed on as a mule, which infuriates Maria and drives a sudden, unexpected wedge in their friendship. Blanca will remain a wild card and a potent dramatic presence through the remainder of Maria, further extending the fascinating dynamics of rivalry and dependency among marginalized women and significantly correcting for another of the film's artistic vulnerabilities, since the initial emphasis on the gorgeous Sandino Moreno rather than her more believably workaday colleagues implies a romantic bent that never, thankfully, reaches full flower.

Having valuably broadened its scope beyond a single character, the film nimbly executes a complicated double-agenda of characterizing the supply-side structures of drug production while also particularizing Maria's own experience and the sensations of her own body within this formidable framework. The brief shots of how cocaine is parceled out and encapsulated are both illuminating and deeply frightening, but even they are nothing compared to two extended close-up shots that follow: that of Maria gagging, as she first attempts to swallow an oil-slickened rubber pellet the size of an adult thumb, and that of Maria succeeding, which is an altogether more tragic spectacle. The dramatic and photographic demands on Sandino Moreno's face in these scenes are, without hyperbole, comparable to what Falconetti delivered in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, and by stripping down his aesthetic to such bare essentials, Marston provides his actress with exactly the right envelope of highly poetic but unsensationalized style to capture and complement her own uncompromising efforts. The grammar of the shots and the editing conspire such that we cannot look at Sandino Moreno's face, much less her body, without feeling something of the bodily torture (that's what it is) that she is withstanding, and around this time, the color palette of the movie becomes that of a bruise: sickly yellows, deep purples, deeper shadows of blue and black.

All of these effects combine most powerfully in the absolutely harrowing sequence where Maria, Blanca, and Lucy, together with who knows how many other nameless passengers, board a flight bound for America and wait out the sweats, the aches, and the blood-curdling anxieties of their endeavor. The thick darkness inside the plane, humming with fluorescent track lights and nightmarishly addled by the tilts and tracks of the camera, is as lonely and fraught as the river Styx. It's an almost expressionist sequence, yet it isn't technically overdone and the uneasy shifts and emergency negotiations among the characters retain their rightful primacy over camera tricks and sonic accents. Though this pivotal sequence ultimately delivers all three of our main characters into new levels of abuse and uncertainty, it also transports Maria Full of Grace into the highest reaches of humanist drama. Stylistically, the film lets up a bit after this interlude, although the narrative doesn't, and Maria's run-ins with state authorities, underworld contacts, and oblivious good samaritans are all heartbreaking in their own ways. The musical score is thankfully unobtrusive, and the performances remain so steely and dignified that we are constantly drawn in by the practical dilemmas of these characters and the looming consequences of their decisions, rather than the obvious pathos of their overall plight. There is nothing wrong with pathos, but Marston and his collaborators want us to think about a problem and learn about a marginalized community, not just sympathize with a martyr. Maria Full of Grace remains bracing and provocative where it could settle for being "merely" devastating.

Meanwhile, all of the tempting analogies and overlaid issues of the film continue to develop alongside one another without becoming glib or one-dimensional. The connections between Maria's unborn child and her digested cargo, both stored in the recesses of her body and destined to cause further distress when they finally emerge, add to the complexity of Maria's problem but Marston never asks us to see one issue as a simple "mirror" or analogy to the other. Each of Maria's challenges remains distinct and specific, so that we feel her sense of being torn between competing impulses that require different solutions, different temperaments and compromises. Cinematographer Jim Denault shows a savvy eye for the colors and flavors of the Colombian neighborhoods of Queens, and there's a lurking irony, the opposite of reassuring, in how both the locale and Maria's movements through the city are so strongly reminiscent of the scenes in Colombia. Maria is able to find her footing on foreign ground rather easily, though she's once again in a tenuous situation where everything hovers on the brink of ruin. A few new characters—and that's all I choose to say about them—become important to Maria during her journey, especially a sad-eyed neighborhood oracle called Don Fernando (Orlando Tobon) and an expecting woman named Carla (Patricia Rae) who is only tenuously connected to these events but invites Maria into her home, with an appropriate combination of compassion and skepticism. All of these parts are written and inhabited with the same muscular, textured commitment of the other roles, and Patricia Rae in particular brings entirely new realms of feeling, passion, and fire to the film.

I'm usually not one to worry much about preserving the secrets or endpoints of a plot. The pieces I write for this site are critiques more than they are reviews, and since narrative conclusions and thematic implications are so central to what any film is and does, I find it silly in most cases to leave them aside. But Maria Full of Grace really deserves to be discovered on its own terms; the oscillations of fate, the surprising revelations of character, and the judicious view of worldly realities for these particular characters are so pristinely achieved that I hope viewers will seek them out and see how much there is to be learned from such a deeply felt and honesty assembled picture. Audiences who go to movies in order to identify with characters and feel their emotions will be as touched by Maria Full of Grace as those who seek knowledge about the world and cogent statements about ethics and politics. Marston's film has all this to offer without ever being single-handedly reducible to any of these questions. When storytellers know how to broach such challenging moral and aesthetic terrain, without becoming simple apologists for their characters or sanctifiers of suffering, we should all take notice and give credit where it is due. From the standpoints of technique, interpretation, cultural sensitivity, and narrative integrity, Maria Full of Grace is an astute and unforgettable work, right through to its final notes. Grade: A–

(in August 2004: A)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Catalina Sandino Moreno

Other Awards:
Berlin Film Festival: Best Actress (Sandino Moreno; tie)
Sundance Film Festival: Audience Award (Dramatic)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Actress (Sandino Moreno); Best First Screenplay
New York Film Critics Circle: Best First Film
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: New Generation Award (Marston and Sandino Moreno)

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