MARIA FULL OF GRACE
Review by Ed Nguyen
Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Jhon Alexander Toro, Guilied Lopez,
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
the way you are, Maria. You are so
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.