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By KJ Doughton | July 14, 2004

Brooklyn-based Director Joshua Marston takes us into the rebellious head of Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a doe-eyed, dark-haired teenager eking out a thankless living at a Colombian flower plantation. Her extended family lives under one tiny, cramped roof, and insists that Maria share her hard-earned dough with everyone. Meanwhile, a passive, hard-drinking boyfriend festers and vegetates, unwilling to take charge of his future.

Dissatisfied with her lot in life, Maria activates a stubborn, iron will and pushes towards something more promising. An out-of-town boy dances with her at a party, then reveals a means of making a quick $5,000 dollars. The job will involve travel. It sounds like a way out of the lazy routine that’s engulfing her.

One of Marston’s unique approaches to “Maria…” is to frame the exotic and dangerous in an immediate way. When his lead character climbs the creaky stairs that lead to a hidden room atop a local pharmacy, we feel that we’re on the journey with her. When she finds herself seated opposite a tired-faced old man named Javier (Jaime Osorio Gomez) who interrogates her and asks if she scares easily, we sense both her curiosity and her fear.

Maria is slowly introduced to Colombia’s illicit drug smuggling trade. She is trained in how to swallow grape-sized, rubber-encased pellets of heroin. Eventually, she will ingest 62, board a plane, and transport the covert goods to New York City as a “mule.” Before stepping on the jet, however, she’s awakened to the seriousness of her predicament when the previously paternal Javier – depicted more as a relaxed grandfatherly-type than a ruthless drug lord – warns her that if any of the cargo comes up missing, he will put in a “visit” to her family.

Accompanied by three additional mules, Maria finds her journey north to be fraught with unpredictable dangers. If one of the white, marshmallow-shaped drug capsules explodes in her stomach, a slow, agonizing death is assured. Meanwhile, there are customs interrogations, hardened drug dealers, and a foreign world bursting with confusion and loneliness – but also promising the potential for a new beginning.

Appearing in nearly every frame, newcomer Sandino is an astonishing find (the power of her performance was honored with the Silver Bear for Best Actress at 2004’s Berlin Film Festival). With no previous feature film experience, the fledgling actress was chosen from over 800 women to play the demanding role of Maria. Her ability to elicit strong emotions with little dialogue brings power and truth to her against-the-grain character, an assertive adolescent marching to the beat of a different drummer. Constantly testing the mettle of those surrounding her, Sandino chastises a sister for not carrying her own financial weight, quits a dead-end job, and confronts two slimy heroin transporters.

Maria might be stubborn and bullheaded, but her vulnerability also shines through, in an emotional scene where she pleads with a kind, New York woman (Patricia Rae) who has taken her in. The truth comes out concerning Maria’s reason for being away from her home country, and angry emotions erupt from this Good Samaritan, who suddenly has her own personal reasons for resenting the mysterious houseguest.

Other non-actors familiar with the film’s subject matter also pop up, creating an authentic vibe that only adds to Marston’s documentary-style feel. Orlando Tobon (also the movie’s associate producer) plays a Queens-based travel agent who has adopted the unusual niche of helping transport the bodies of deceased mules back to their families in Colombia. His character, Don Fernando, was based on Tobon’s actual life experiences working in Jackson Heights’ Colombian community.

Each year, hundreds of mules make the same journey depicted in Marston’s film. For many, it’s a one-way ticket to the grave. But “Maria Full of Grace” isn’t really about drugs. It’s about what motivates people to make hard choices. However, deciding whether or not to view this unique glimpse into a seldom seen world should be easy. It’s a must-see.

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