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Dangerous journey: Moreno (r) in Maria Full of Grace.

Rite of Passage
By Ann Morrow

Maria Full of Grace
Directed by Joshua Marston

Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is 17 years old and lives in a village in Colombia. She works for a flower factory, scraping thorns off of roses in sweatshop conditions. Most of her money goes to help support her family: grandmother, mother, sister, and her sister’s baby. There are no men in the household; it’s unspoken that the drug trade has taken a toll on the village’s demographics. Maria hates her grueling job, and isn’t too keen on her jerky boyfriend, Juan (Wilson Guerrero). As she tells him, he’s a drag. After quitting her job, she discovers that she is pregnant.

Written and directed by Joshua Marston, Maria Full of Grace is an unusual film in that it concerns volatile subject matters but deals with them with objectivity, compassion, and subdued realism. At a dance, Maria meets a self-assured, courtly young man who offers her a job as a “mule,” someone who transports drugs into the United States. We have great sympathy for her decision to take the job, especially since it’s clear that she is not doing it for the young man, but because it’s her only way out of her predicament. As her mother tells her, “There’s nothing in this village but flowers.” Nothing else, that is, except drugs.

Maria is “trained” to be a courier by Lucy, a glamorous, slightly older woman from another village. The process itself is harrowing: The women swallow latex-wrapped pellets of heroin the size of large grapes—50 to 70 of them at time. If a pellet should open inside their stomachs, they will die. And the chances of getting caught are good to excellent. Maria tries to keep her impulsive best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), from becoming a mule, but Blanca will not be dissuaded; it’s too much money to turn down. The flight to the States is extremely tense, and when the women are met by their contacts in New Jersey, they realize how dangerous their situation is—these dealers are not like the kindly kingpin who supervised them in Colombia.

The film confounds expectations at every turn, exposing the drug trade—and the economic desperation that can fuel it—with an attention to detail that is more cautionary than any crime drama. Marston’s nonjudgmental viewpoint centers on how Maria experiences the consequences of her decision. Strong and spirited, she grows up in hurry, coping with extraordinarily awful situations with a steadfast commitment to doing what’s right. Moreno, the photogenic newcomer who plays Maria, is so natural and magnetic that it’s almost impossible to tell that she’s acting at all. All the actresses are exemplary, especially Patricia Rae in a smaller role as Lucy’s sister, a seamstress living in the Colombian quarter of Queens.

Filmed and edited in a casually methodical style, Maria Full of Grace tells several stories seamlessly, revealing with equal skill the depressing inner workings of the drug trade, the frightening first days of immigration, and the coming-of-age of an exceptional young woman. At the end, viewers may find themselves fervently hoping that Maria’s new life will provide her with the freedom and dignity she deserves.

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