`Maria' full of honesty, suspense

The film offers a glimpse into world of desperation

August 13, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Maria Full of Grace reminds us of a key truth when considering those who inhabit the outer fringes of society: They're people, too.

That first-time writer-director Joshua Marston is able to remind us of that in the context of an honestly acted and genuinely suspenseful drama makes this one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer. Maria offers a window into a world most of us probably have never given a second thought, offering a study of human tragedy made all the more stark by its seeming inevitability. If anywhere, the movie fails by not pursuing Maria's story further; one gets the feeling the most memorable character growth comes after the closing credits.

Beautiful and stubborn, too smart to go along just to get along, Maria (Colombian newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno) lives in an impoverished Colombian neighborhood from which escape seems unlikely; at the moment, she's the sole means of support for her elderly mother and older sister, who stays at home because she has a baby to care for.

Stuck in a ruthlessly dead-end job (she strips the thorns off cut roses), Maria doesn't even dream of better things - she just seethes, angry that she can't do any better, angry that no one around her can do any better.

All of which makes her extraordinarily vulnerable to anything that even suggests a better life, even something she knows is wrong and dangerous and just plain stupid ... like swallowing a few dozen bags filled with cocaine.

But that's exactly what she does, becoming a mule for the neighborhood drug lord. All she has to do is swallow the bags, hop on a plane to New York and see that the proper people get the drugs that have been stowed away in her stomach. For her trouble, she's promised more money than she would have seen in a lifetime of stripping roses. She also faces the threat of being arrested once she lands in New York, not to mention death if one of those bags ruptures.

Maria glosses over nothing; conditions in Colombia are bleak, Maria's home life is desperate and the fate of these resignedly fatalistic mules grim.

Marston, whose film won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is sympathetic toward these women who see no other way out of the crushing poverty they're forced to endure in Colombia. But he doesn't make Maria a saint, or even much of a sympathetic figure. She's simply a teenager trying to make do who sees a way - and she never assumes it's an easy way, which is key - to score some good money. By the time she sees how dangerous it really is, thanks largely to the fate that befalls Lucy, an older woman she befriends (memorably underplayed by Guilied Lopez), it's too late.

Making matters worse, she's become an unwilling surrogate mother to Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), another young girl from her village, who also decides to become a mule but panics at the first sign of trouble.

Moreno, 23, makes her acting debut in Maria, and she's a perfect fit for the role. She plays Maria as an old soul, beaten down by her situation and desperate to escape, but wiser to the ways of the world than perhaps she realizes.

Unlike her friend Blanca, who never really thinks her situation through, Maria quickly tosses off any blinders she may have been wearing; her situation is desperate, and she knows it. Moreno rarely smiles, but doesn't go through the movie scowling, either. She simply is, her face locked in a blank stare waiting for a reason to smile.

The true heartbreak of Maria Full of Grace is that it never comes.

Maria Full of Grace

Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Guilied Lopez

Directed by Joshua Marston

Released by Fine Line Features (In Spanish and English, with English subtitles)

Rated R (violence, drugs, language)

Time 101 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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