Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4
It's nice, especially nowadays, to hear America described as
"perfect." You won't hear that too often among citizens who were
born and who grew up here in the States, but in some parts of
the world (no, not Western Europe or much of the Middle East),
our streets are still paved with gold, our government saintly.
"Perfect" is the way a character in "Maria Full of Grace"
describes our country. In Joshua Marston's debut as director,
using his own script which evolved through some improvisational
work with the actors, you can understand why someone from
Colombia would think as she does about the U.S. Colombia is
known, unfortunately, as the source of much of the drug traffic in
America, yet despite the great wealth amassed by the higher-ups
in the drug trade, many Colombians are trying to make do with
less than one dollar a day.
The title character, Maria (Catalina Sandino), for example, not
only makes all too little money picking thorns from rose stems
and boxing them for sale, but she has to ask permission of her
foreman to go to the bathroom. And when she throws up on a
bunch of roses after being refused said permission, her boss,
instead of sympathizing, orders her to clean the flowers up.
That's the last straw for her, and given that she's pregnant as
well from a boy friend who offers unsuccessfully to marry her,
she's had it with honest work and is steered toward a much
riskier if far more lucrative job. Through contacts, she is hired as
a mule, a person who swallows from 60 to 100 pellets of heroin
or cocaine and, using a false passport and visa plus a round trip
one-week ticket to New York, she is offered more money for a
single trip than she could have earned in a year of plucking flowers.
"Maria, llena eres de gracia" as the film is known in its native
Spanish (English subtitles, of course), takes us from Maria's
unhappy job in a factory through her contact with the Colombian
drug lord who explains the procedure, through her practicing her
new trade by swallowing large grapes whole. She takes off with a
few other young women, at least one of whom gets caught while
another, after suffering the breakage of one of the latex gloves
enveloping the drugs, dies and has her stomach cut open by the
New Jersey motel contact.
"Maria" is filmed by Jim Denault in and around an Ecuadorian
town south of Quito, with some lush photography showing up the
mountainous beauty of that small country. The concluding
segments take place in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York,
where Maria's lies get her set up in the home of the sister of one
of these mules.
The picture holds some striking, deliberately underplayed
performances from the lead, Ms. Sandino and a nice job by non-
professional actor Yenny Paola Vega as her rotund friend
Blanca–who is even more lost in New York than Maria and
follows her around like a homeless Chihuahua.
What we come away with is an appreciation of life in the United
States or, for that matter a distaste for a Third World country
whose natural beauty belies its horrendous standard of living for
perhaps a majority of the rural population.
Impressive though it may be, "Maria Full of Grace" cannot be
considered in the same breath as the classic study of poverty-
stricken Latin Americans who come to the U.S. for a better
standard of living, Gregory Nava's monumental "El Norte"–a
sweeping saga of a brother and sister who leave their violence-
torn village in Guatemala to find a better life in The North. What it
lacks in humor and complexity, however, is made up for in its
authentic performances and the exposition to naive Americans
like me of a culture of poverty and the desperate attempts by
some people living therein to find a better way.
Copyright © 2004 Harvey Karten