Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Jhon Alexander Toro, Guilied Lopez, Orlando Tobon
Director: Joshua Marston
Audio: Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 or stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: HBO Films
Features: Director commentary, trailers
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: December 7, 2004

"That's the way you are, Maria.  You are so stubborn."

Film ****

Over the last four decades, the small South American country of Columbia has endured an international reputation as a hotbed for illegal drug trafficking.  The scale of the Columbian drug cartels' organization is of such magnitude that individual victims on both sides of the international war on drugs are trivialized, becoming merely further, forgotten casualties in a global conflict.  The remarkable independent film Maria Full of Grace (2004) humanizes this on-going struggle by following the life of one young woman whose desperate personal circumstances eventually force her into the dangerous world of drug trade.

Seventeen-year-old Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) lives in a small Columbian villa with her mother, her sister, and the sister's infant child.  The family's continual struggles to earn enough income for survival means that Maria is seemingly pre-destined to a lifelong existence of poverty within the rural community.  Every day before dawn, she rides a bus to the local rose plantation where, like hundreds of other girls, she spends hour after hour de-thorning flowers.  The rose industry is honest work and represents one of Columbia's largest and legitimate exports.  However, it is menial and mind-numbing labor offering little stimulus for a promising future, even if within this rural setting, for these girls, there is no other work to be had.

Maria is an intelligent and spirited young woman.  Frustrated with her constant belittlement at work and craving for more than her small town can offer her, Maria ultimately quits her job to the consternation of her mother and sister, who accuse her of overzealous pride or selfishness.  Yet, beyond a boyfriend who doesn't love her and a family that only takes advantage of her hard work, there is little to tie Maria to her hometown.  Soon, she decides to venture into Bogotá to seek more fulfilling employment, and it is in this city that Maria makes her fateful decision to become a drug courier.

The couriers are called "mules." They deliver the drugs from Columbia to America by swallowing dozens of drug pellets.  The payment for each successful transport is only $5000, but in an impoverished country where the average annual salary is far less, the lure of becoming a courier can outweigh its potential dangers.  Risks include detainment and arrest by the vigilant U.S. Customs officials and, more ominously, death by overdose if even one of the pellets should rupture.

Maria, by cause of her rebellious nature, now needs money to support her family but, more privately, the visa and passport provided to her by the local kingpin (Jaime Osorio Gomez) are, in essence, a means to an end.  They represent hope - the promise of a fresh beginning - that often attracts otherwise-honest but destitute people into the drug trade.  If Columbia cannot offer a future for Maria, then perhaps America will.

Maria soon befriends Lucy (Guilied Lopez), a two-time courier who offers her survival tips and whose friendship will later have bittersweet consequences in America.  Maria is also joined by her hometown friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), who has little courage or initiative of her own but is willing to openly criticize Maria's every move while doggedly and somewhat hypocritically following in her footsteps.

Despite the obvious allusions to Catholicism in the film's title, as well as the seemingly symbolic representation of the drug pellets as communion wafers, Maria is not a completely innocent or angelic individual caught up in the drug trade.  She is certainly a sympathetic character whose aspirations and youthful determination will appeal to audiences, yet her pride repetitively compels her to make some poor decisions on her personal odyssey for freedom.  Even so, Maria's human flaws establish her as a more well-rounded and believable character and more suitably enhance the depiction of the film's stark realism.

Maria Full of Grace covers ground already treaded upon by such films as Dirty Pretty Things and particularly the acclaimed British mini-series Traffik - the exploitation of the poor and underprivileged, the entire subculture of the immigrant underworld, the overwhelming prevalence of hopelessness or despair that might lead otherwise decent people to criminal measures.  Yet while Maria Full of Grace's themes may not be especially original, the documentary-style presentation of this immigrant story and its affecting lead heroine offer an intimate and poignant portrayal of one woman caught up in forces and machinations beyond her control.  As Maria, Catalina Sandino Moreno is a revelation and provides an emotionally raw and insightful performance that is the most affecting by any debut film actress in years.  She subsequently won a Best Actress award at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival and became the first Columbian ever nominated for an Academy Award (as Best Actress), deservedly so.

The drug trade is often perceived as a criminal endeavor best solved by military and paramilitary efforts, but ultimately, the crisis is really an economic and social one.  The hundreds of millions of dollars sent each year in military aid to this small South American country do little to actually address those social issues.  If the drug trade is to be considered a social disease, then the treatment should be aimed at the cause rather than the symptoms.  Otherwise, the stories of anonymous and often desperate individuals like Maria Alvarez and hundreds like her will persist unabated, their lives uncelebrated and their deaths unmourned.

Video ****

The Maria Full of Grace DVD may be short on bonus features, but that disc space has been utilized to the fullest for the video transfer.  The film looks fantastic with a highly detailed and pristine appearance.  Colors are sharp with realistic skin tones and background hues.  The bit transfer rate averages a very strong 8 Mbps or more.  Overall, HBO Films has done a commendable job with this film.

Audio ****

Maria Full of Grace is presented in Spanish, either with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track or a stereo 2.0 track.  Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.  Generally, the film is dialogue-driven, but the dynamic background ambiance is quite good, too, with a distributed spatial definition among all the speakers.  We can almost sense the palpable buzz of the sweatshops, and the street noises and traffic ambiance add extra flavor to the film's aural quality, too.  The film's sound design was obviously quite important to director Joshua Marston, as is evident in the generally excellent audio quality of this DVD.

Features **

The disc opens up with trailers for Real Women Have Curves, American Splendor, and Elephant, all of which are solid character-driven independent films (America Ferrera is particularly good as the lead heroine in Real Women Have Curves).  In addition, U.S. and international trailers for Maria Full of Grace can also be accessed from the "Special Features" menu.  Interestingly, the U.S. trailer emphasizes action and thriller elements, while the international thriller concentrates mostly on the film's strong characterizations.

Other than these trailers, the only actual special feature is an informative commentary track by writer/director Joshua Marston.  The film was the culmination of a five-year project by the independent filmmaker, and he describes the concept for the film and its central character Maria, including the extensive search for the right actress to portray her.  Marston also goes into some details about the difficulties of the international production and location shoots, with Ecuador substituting mostly for Columbia.  On a few rare occasions, he refers to various deleted scenes from the film, although these are unfortunately not presented on this disc.  The commentary closes with remarks about the film's warm public reception, not only for its stars and subject matter but also for Orlando Tobon, the real-life benevolent "mayor of Little Columbia" who fulfills a role in reality very much like the one he portrays in this film as the kind-hearted Don Fernando in Queens.


Maria Full of Grace is a wonderful, independently-made film with an astounding debut performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno.  Equal parts a compelling look at the Columbian drug trade from a personal perspective as well as a bittersweet story of one individual's unwavering spirit and determination, Maria Full of Grace is without a doubt one of the best films of 2004.  Highly recommended!

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