Maria Full of Grace

dir: Joshua Marston
[img_assist|nid=987|title=So there's a downside to the cocaine industry, you say?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=360|height=504]
Ah, drugs. Drugs are great, drugs are good. They’re fun, they let you sometimes have a great time, and they make inanimate objects, surfaces and other people seem more interesting than they actually are.

I’ve heard that they have a downside as well, but frankly I can’t see it. Drugs are simply wonderful. In case you think I’m talking about the wonders of modern pharmaceutical drugs and medicines, think again! I’m talking exclusively about illegal Class A drugs. The ones that cost a fortune and make awful people very wealthy. They also garner you a dirty cell and a cellmate who calls himself “The Stallion” if you get caught selling or smuggling them, but that’s a small price to pay, surely compared to the bountiful and constant fun they can bring.

Maria Full of Grace is a movie about two main topics: a teenage girl called Maria (played well by Catalina Sandino Moreno), and the way that drugs sometimes gets smuggled inside human receptacles into the United States from Colombia. You wouldn’t have thought it, but it’s a harsh and dangerous process, and the people who control the trade are thoroughly vile individuals who are as likely to kill you as say “Good Morning Captain” to you if the mood takes them.

The girl in the title lives in a shitty Colombian town and has no illusions about her life or of her prospects in life. If she had only one definable quality (and she has several), it is the fact that she is fearless. She confronts every situation with this certainty that she can get through anything. As someone who’s confronted pretty much every situation in life with the exact opposite belief in play, I feel compelled to say that I find her an admirable character, despite where her actions take her.

The film only vaguely refers to the problems in Colombia, but we don’t need to go into complex macroeconomic explanations of ethnographies and demographics to understand that whilst Colombia may be paradise for the cocaine producers, it’s a pretty crappy place to live for poor people. Maria packs in a wageslave job de-thorning roses and decides that there are better ways to make some dosh in this capitalist paradise we call the Modern World.

The kind of motherfucker that exists all over the globe ready to exploit people finds her at a vulnerable time in her life, convincing her that there are better ways to make a buck. These kinds of guys usually talk women into getting on their knees for a living thinking that being a pimp is actually something commendable in this or any day or age and a good earner. Franklin has the manner of someone that was caught masturbating by his mother way too many times, but still acts like he’s something better than a parasite.

You almost feel like Maria dares to do certain things only to be able to prove to other people and herself that she is unafraid of anything that life can fling at her, and she is utterly convincing. Horribly naïve, but convincing. So it almost appears that it’s not her family’s need for money or crushing poverty, or even a desire to travel that motivates her.
She has an unsatisfying relationship with a local dullard of no prospects and no ambition, and needs something “bigger” that is abstract to her at first but becomes clearer on her journey. Once she commits to her path we are privy to the entire mechanics, the practicalities, the staggering details of how people actually go about the business of swallowing packages of drugs for the purposes of smuggling instead of fun.

The film goes into this intricate level of detail because that’s the central point of the film. You could hardly call it exploitative or excessive when the film is trying to create a “real” story about the lives of drug mules. I have no actual way of knowing how accurate the amazing realities of the whole process are, since I’ve never to date worked in the industry. Nor do I intend to, unless of course my career as a part-time film reviewer and full-time chorus line dancer doesn’t work out, then it’ll be on for young and old. I’ll make Tony Montana look like Fred Nile and ask many, many people to Say Hello to My Little Friend.

For the uninitiated, that is not a reference to my or anyone else’s cock. It’s from Scarface, you ignorami. All the same, not being privy to the inner workings of such a dastardly enterprise, it sure looked credible. Having heard an interview with American director Joshua Marston on the radio the other week, whilst he didn’t specify who exactly gave him his sneak peak into this world, he said that he spoke to as many mules as he could to get the details right, and I believe him. It looks real. It feels real and it looks like a very difficult task to carry out.

The film mostly adopts a kind of realism, using what seems to be natural light much of the time and music that appears to be playing in the locations rather a soundtrack. Of course “realism” in cinema is as artificial as any other look because it needs to be worked that way, but it definitely enhances the way in which the story is told, making it look real.

All this being said, whilst I think it’s an okay movie, there isn’t really much to it. I know that the lives of drug mules, and in fact actual four-legged mules are pretty short, harsh and brutal. I sort of figured out that the people that run these businesses are ruthless, totally without ruth, and willing to kill at the drop of a pellet of cocaine. Maria is an interesting character, but no-one else in the film really is. Apart from the swallowing and the bumbling around New York, not much else happens.

Two other drug mules come to New York with Maria, Lucy and Maria’s best friend Blanca, who seems to be something of a moron. Lucy is a veteran of muling, this being her third trip. She has a sad tale to tell, since her desire to do this nasty job is predicated on her being able to afford to visit her sister in New York, but on her other two trips she’d been too ashamed by what she’d done to see her. Experience also doesn’t always carry you through in the end. The performances are pretty natural, and except for Lucy pretty forgettable. Lucy also helps “train” Maria by teaching the intricacies of the smuggling trade and most importantly how to suppress her gag reflex in order to be able to swallow the packages. Some people get the best jobs.

Throughout all of this Catalina Sandino Moreno’s performance is an exercise in subtlety and restraint, ingenuity and nerves of steel. For a first-time actor she brought much to the table. It’s a good case of less being more in terms of how she plays most scenes. She has one moment of pure happiness which is the only moment I can remember her smiling for any length of time, but I won’t spoil it for those legions of people I can imagine running out there to see it based on my review. It’s interesting to watch her interact with people to see her try to get what she wants or to get other people to do what’s right. Also, it’s probably good to point out that for such a grim-sounding film she does not live a life without hope. She’s not the kind of person that gives up when everything looks utterly bleak.

It might sound like it’s a moralistic, tut tutting kind of film, but it’s not. You’re not really asked to feel sympathy with the mules breaking the law and risking their lives for any other reason apart from the fact that they’re just people. Actual human beings subjecting themselves to a horrific process in order to make some pretty ugly people even wealthier.
There is much value to this film, but it is not a thrill ride a minute kind of flick. They’re isn’t any of the snappy dialogue, great outfits, gun battles or explosions that we generally expect and crave from drug / crime films. Because this film isn’t about crime.

It’s about a seventeen girl and some of the hard choices she makes in her life, some stupid and some wise, but she’s strong enough to see out all the repercussions of her actions. That’s the kind of storytelling that I can appreciate.

But drugs, they’re still great, yeah? Wouldn’t have a bad word said about them. I mean, who doesn’t want to snort some powder that spent sixteen hours in the colon of a sad and desperate Colombian peasant? Mmm, yummy. I want more.

7 mountains of cocaine that I would snort on a daily basis once they made me mayor of this one-horse town out of 10

“If you’re looking for work, I can help. It involves travel.” – Maria Full of Grace