Maria Full of Grace

I watched the DVD of Maria Full of Grace tonight, and was actually quite impressed. I find that the general film press sources I read, like Entertainment Weekly or Roger Ebert, tend to heap praise on foreign flicks, just because. But like last year's City of God (which was one of my favorites of the year), Maria is a realistic, incisive look into a culture we don't hear about very often; In City of God, it was Brazilian slum street gangs, and in Maria, its Columbian drug mules. Not the actual mules, mind you, but young women that are paid to deliver drugs to the U.S. By swallowing them. Fun job, eh?

Maria, as portrayed by newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno, is seventeen, pregnant, newly unemployed, and lives with three generations of her family in a cramped house outside of Bogota. Looking for money, she becomes involved with local drug lords, and becomes a "mule", transporting heroin to New York City by ingesting 60 small packets of the drug. This is a role that required precision handling, for it could easily become weepy and sentimental, or conversely, like The Opposite of Sex, Maria could have become a film where you had zero sympathy for, or empathy with, the main character. Moreno, however, in her first film, turns in a performance worthy of an actress many years her senior. Her graceful journey through her character's many conflicting emotions centers the film in her journey, not the tricky subject matter. It is a rare occasion when an established Hollywood actress can carry a film in such a manner, yet Moreno's performance seems effortless. Since Oscar season is rolling around again, perhaps another comparison is in order. Last year, Keisha Castle-Hughes brought me to tears in Whale Rider, her first film, and earned herself an Oscar nomination in the process. While Moreno's role does not carry the same emotional weight as Hughes', I'm still adding her to my list of deserving candidates. (The list also includes Peter Sarsgaard of Kinsey, for those keeping score at home.)

I haven't watched the film with the commentary on yet, but I am really eager to: There must be great stories about the process. Maria was shot on location in Columbia, Ecuador and New York, with mostly Columbian actors, only two of which had previous film experience, at least as listed at The Internet Movie Database. Furthermore, this is only the second film for writer-director Joshua Marston, a California-born former journalist. That such a challenging set of circumstance can be overcome, for Maria to become one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year, is an encouraging sign that at least part of the moviegoing public is interested in story, not just flashy effects and loud noises. I know I sound like an art house snob right here, but at a time when Fat Albert, National Treasure and White Noise are all outperforming The Life Aquatic at the theaters, its refreshing to see a little indie film like Maria make a ripple in the big boy's pond. Sometimes, all you need is a great story, and you can get an A. Come to think of it, City of God gets an A, too. So there.


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