Maria Full of Grace, the terrific Spanish-language feature, has been winning awards at every festival it plays, and it's easy to see why. Colombian writer-director Joshua Marston knows that direct and 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.
Inspired by numerous real-life cases, Maria Full of Grace is a truly gripping thriller. Its gut-wrenching suspense stems from the film's subject matter and 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, Marston encourages audiences to experience conflicting responses. Maria engages in the illegal activity knowingly and consciously but she does it to support her family. Whether Maria is culpable or just naive, and whether her goal justifies the means is up to us to decide.
A quiet but rebellious girl, Maria works at a tedious job trimming stems in a rose plantation. She's stuck in a relationship with a loser boy friend whom she doesn't love that results in pregnancy.
Maria 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 describes how she has to ingest scores of rubber pellets (the size of big grapes) packed with heroin and later excretes them. Of course, 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 her family.
The suspense increases during a nail-biting airplane trip, where Maria meets her cohorts: Lucy, a more experienced mule, her friend Blanca, and another woman. Though they hardly know each other, the women are mutually dependent. The arrest of one would threaten all 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 her pregnancy.
The ordeal continues, when the girls land in Queens and encounter Orlando Tobon, a community leader and unofficial Mayor of “Little Colombia.” Wit no place to stay, they arrive unannounced at the tiny apartment of Lucy's sister. The sister is totally unaware that Lucy had died from a burst pellet, as 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 way to survive. 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 unblinking focus and sustains unbearable level of tension. Taking a decidedly nonjudgmental approach, he simply documents the circumstances that motivate Maria to accept the dangerous task.
Marston keeps his gaze focused on Maria and what's at stake for her. His superbly nuanced drama is greatly dependent on Catalina Sandino Moreno, the beautiful and alert Colombian actress who carries the entire film on her shoulders. If their's justice, Catalina should receive critical acclaim and perhaps even Oscar nomination for her role.
There are no visual clich here. No images of a woman running alone in the dark. No aggressive violins on the soundtrack to manipulate expectations. No jazzy and aggressive montages. Instead, Marston builds ups the viewers' emotional investment in Maria, keeping their sympathy firmly on her side throughout the life-threatening journey.
The film is a model of economy and efficiency. There is not one superfluous scene that distracts or detracts from the main story. There are no anachronisms in period detail or dialogue, and attention is never diverted from the cracked and painful reality.
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. Nonetheless, 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 resonant and credible that such a traumatic experience will make Maria even stronger and more determined to take control of her future.
Viewers usually become adversarial when they watch unintelligently plotted thrillers, but this arresting drama never slips into implausibility–or sentimentality. The movie tells an unflinchingly cruel immigrant story that differs from mushy border sagas like Victor Nava's El Norte.
European directors specializing in suspense (including the great Frenchman Chabrol) often become sidetracked with their characters. They sometimes become more intrigued by their characters' complexity than by their functions in the narrative as a whole. In contrast, in Maria Full of Grace, everything exists to serve the story. Avoiding any distracting flourishes or moral judgments, Marston bases his measured approach on the 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 interplay between the director and his tale, but a three-way game in which the audience is very much required to play an active role.