Directed by: Joshua Marston
Written by:Joshua Marston
Starring: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Virginia Ariza, Johanna Andrea Mora
Released: March 31, 2005
Grade: A-

17-year-old Maria Alvarez (Moreno) is looking for independence.  In her native Colombia, she works in a flower factory.  For minimum wage, she stands at a desk, removes the leaves off long flower stalks, bundles them together, and tries to meet her daily quota.  Further frustrating Maria is her family.  Most of her pay has to go her mother and her unemployed, unmarried sister who has a young baby to take care of.

At a party, she meets a young guy who offers a better employment opportunity – as a drug “mule”.  The lure of big dollars is just too attractive and Maria accepts.  Before starting her first assignment, Maria gets the run-down from her new boss.  She will need to starve herself for 24 hours then swallow roughly 80 rubber capsules filled with heroine.  Maria will then be ready to board a flight to New York, slip through customs undetected and then extricate the drugs from her stomach in a hotel room.  In her innocent eyes, it’s worth the risk.

Maria Full Of Grace is as informative as it is engaging.  I’m aware of the drug trafficking problems in Central America (having seen Traffic amongst other films) but never before have I seen a film go so intimately behind the scenes.  The capsules that Maria is forced to swallow are about 4.2cm long and 1.4cm wide.  Can you imagine forcing 80 of those down your throat and having them sit in your stomach for over 24 hours?  The only thing stopping them from coming apart is a thin rubber coating.  If one should open up inside your stomach, you’ll surely die.

As perilous as it is, people are still willing to put their lives on the line.  The drug lords con naïve, poverty-stricken youngsters and stick a big, juicy carrot in front of their nose.  It’s an opportunity they can’t afford to turn down and the drug lords know it.  As the film’s poster promotes, this film is based not on one but on thousands of other similar stories.

The star of the film is Catalina Sandino Moreno in her very first movie role.  You can’t ask for a better start to one’s career and Moreno was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for best actress in a leading role.  The fact that she has been recognised is the ultimate tribute to her performance.  It’s not easy being recognised when you star in a low-budget foreign language picture.  She lost out to Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) but the nomination alone should see a few extra screenplays arrive at her front doorstep.

There are a few more elements to this story which are both fascinating and shocking.  I won’t spoil these plot developments as you need to enjoy this film without expectations.  It’s one reason why I love unheralded independent films – the fact that they are unknown and independent makes them a lot more difficult to predict.