film review: maria full of grace

Life in rural Colombia is stifling and harsh for seventeen-year-old Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Working on a flower plantation, she de-thorns roses under the watchful eye of a boss who monitors productivity by the hour and doles out bathroom breaks. It’s punishing work and becomes a source of familial friction when Maria quits her job.

Maria lives with her mother, an unmarried sister, and the sister’s young son; they depend on Maria’s income and expect her to put their needs above her own. Her family insists she beg for her job back, but Maria refuses to return to a job that forced her to pay for her lost productivity when she was ill.

Maria also refuses to marry her boyfriend, with whom she is no longer in love. In a telling scene, they’re standing against a wall, kissing. Bored, her attention trails away to the sky and then to a building, which she decides to climb to get to the roof. Come with me, she asks. He doesn’t, and she follows her impulse without him. He watches her make the difficult climb alone and then walks away.

When Maria tells her boyfriend she is pregnant, he insists they should marry and live in his family’s house, which is already very crowded and would mean sharing a bedroom with his brother. Finding that an intolerable prospect and seeking a way out, Maria says yes when an acquaintance offers to introduce her to a man hiring drug mules to smuggle heroin into New York.

Desperate and facing awful choices that give her no choice at all, Maria agrees to swallow 60 latex-covered pellets of heroin, knowing that if one or more pellets are missing when she arrives in New York, family members will be killed. Maria has no idea who will meet her in New York, but on landing discovers it’s a pair of thugs whose job is to recover every pellet swallowed by the mules. When fellow mule Lucy dies from an accidental ingestion and overdose, she is slashed open to get the remaining pellets. Frightened, Maria flees.

Taking refuge in the Colombian community in Queens, Maria is helped by Lucy’s sister Carla and Don Fernando (Orlando Tobón), who runs a small business and helps immigrants find work. Not a professional actor, Tobón actually does run a travel agency in Queens, and helps immigrants transition to life in the US. He has also helped bury or repatriate Colombian drug mules who have died as Lucy does in the film. Writer/director Joshua Marston rewrote his script to include Don Fernando when he met Tobón while filming.

In Spanish, Maria Full of Grace is American director Marston’s first feature-length film, and it is remarkably good. Inspired by the work of British directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, Marston observes his characters’ hard lives and harder choices with honesty and respect, never romanticizing the poverty and danger they face. In this, and with a low-key visual style, he achieves a quiet authenticity.

Maria is often framed in the larger context of everyday life, whether in her hometown, Bogotá, or Queens. Marston and cinematographer Jim Denault (Real Women Have Curves) fluidly capture street rhythms, colors, and densities; we feel as if we’re on the ground with Maria, walking in her world. The film’s score assists, revealing a neighborhood’s character by its music, echoing Maria’s emotions, and expanding the grace at the end of her journey.

film review
maria full of grace

risking everything for something