Maria Full of Grace

It's easy to see why “Maria Full of Grace,” the terrific Spanish-language feature, has been winning awards at every festival it plays. Colombian filmmaker Joshua Marston knows that direct, immediate suspense is the key to making the audience share the ordeal of his heroine, the 17-year-old Maria who works as a drug mule.

The HBO DVD edition shows that, on a second viewing, “Maria” is even more enjoyable than it was the first time around. Marston's commentary, which is just as riveting and interesting as his movie, talks about the extensive research he conducted before writing the screenplay, and the problems of taking an explosively controversial subject matter, that could have been easily misunderstood, and turn it into a subtle, emotionally engaging human drama.

Would-be filmmakers may also learn a lesson or two about the importance for a director to collaborate with his crew and cast. Marston discusses the freedom he gave his cinematographer to experiment with the visual style, and the implicit trust he had in his lead actress, Catalina Sandino Moreno, encouraging her to improvise and leave her personal impact on the role.

Nominated for several important Spirit Awards, “Maria” is on my Ten Best List of the year, with Moreno as serious contender for acting kudos, by critics, SAG Actor awards, and hopefully by the Academy's Acting Branch as well.

Inspired by numerous real-life cases, “Maria” is a truly gripping thriller. Its gut-wrenching suspense resides in the film's subject as well as the director's method. It's as if we the viewers had sent Maria on her drug-carrying mission and we must now watch her risk her life. Handling tough material, the director encourages audiences to experience conflicting responses. Maria engages knowingly in the illegal activity, but she does it to support her family. Is she culpable or just nave Does her goal justify the means

A quiet but rebellious girl, Maria works at a tedious job trimming stems in a rose plantation. She's also stuck in a relationship with a loser boy friend that results in pregnancy. She decides to quit her thankless job and go to Bogota. While looking for a job, a friend introduces her to a drug supplier who explains what's required of her as a mule. With methodic detail, Marston chronicles the process of ingesting scores of rubber pellets (the size of big grapes) packed with heroin, which the mule later excretes. As expected, the boss downplays the risk of arrest and the mortal danger of a pellet bursting open in her stomach, not to mention that failure to deliver the packages intact will endanger Maria's family.

The suspense increases during a nail-biting airplane trip, where Maria meets her cohorts: Lucy, a more experienced mule, her best friend Blanca, and another woman. Though they hardly know each other, the women are mutually dependent: The arrest of one could threaten the others. More nerve-wrecking tension follows, when Maria is interrogated by the American Customs. In an irony of ironies, she narrowly avoids being x-rayed when the agents discover she's pregnancy.

The ordeal continues, when the girls land in Queens and encounter Orlando Tobon, a community leader and unofficial Mayor of “Little Colombia.” Without a place to stay, they arrive unannounced at the tiny apartment of Lucy's sister, unaware that Lucy has died from the burst pellet, a casualty of the drug trade.

Marston avoids the sensationalized accounts of heroin trafficking to present the harsh drama of a girl drifting into an impossible assignment as her only viable choice. He literally sweeps the audience along on Maria's unpredictable odyssey from rural Colombia to New York City. In a strikingly assured debut, Marston maintains an unblinking focus and throughout sustains an unbearable level of tension. Taking a decidedly nonjudgmental approach, he simply documents the circumstances that motivate Maria to accept such a dangerous task.

The film follows a gutsy woman who embarks on a life-threatening journey. Marston keeps his gaze focused on Maria and what's at stake for her. His superbly nuanced drama is assisted by Catalina Sandino Moreno, the beautiful and alert Colombian actress who carries the entire film on her shoulders.

There are no visual clichs here. No images of a woman running alone in the dark. No aggressive violins on the soundtrack to manipulate our expectations. No jazzy and aggressive montages. Instead, Marston builds ups the viewers' emotional investment in the situation, keeping their sympathy firmly on Maria's side throughout the ordeal. The film is a model of economy and efficiency. There's not one superfluous scene to distract or detract from the main story.

“Maria Full of Grace” may not be as ambitious as Soderbergh's “Traffic,” a social-problem saga with wider scope and larger ensemble of both good and bad Mexicans and Americans. But it's a much more satisfying film in illustrating the mechanics of the drug trade and the human faces behind it.

Some critics complained about Marston's “upbeat” closure, which shows an altered Maria going back to Colombia. But I found it both resonant and credible that such a traumatic experience will make Maria stronger, more determined to take control of her future.

Audiences become adversarial when they watch incredibly, unintelligently plotted thrillers, but this arresting drama never slips into implausibility or sentimentality. It's an unflinchingly cruel immigrant story that differs from mushy border stories like Victor Nava's “El Norte” (1984). There are no anachronisms in period detail or dialogue, and attention is never diverted from the cracked and painful reality.

European directors specializing in suspense (including the great Chabrol) often become sidetracked with their characters. They become more intrigued by the characters' complexity than in their functions for the narrative as a whole. In contrast, in “Maria Full of Grace, “everything exists to serve the story. Marston avoids any distracting flourishes or moral judgments. His measured approach benefits from his sharply observational camera and clean, functional editing.

For audiences to be won over by a film's reality is a sweet surrender craved by every director. Though it's his first film, Marston already shows mastery in the art of suspense. “Maria Full of Grace” is the kind of thriller in which the spectacle is not based on the dual interplay between the director and his tale, but a three-way game in which the audience is required to play an active role.

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