If Maria's story is a template for countless others like it, what keeps your heart in your throat during the movie is Maria herself. In a performance that feels lived in rather than acted, Ms. Moreno's Maria is an attractive, smart, spirited young woman who faces the challenge of fending for herself with a fierce determination and an ingenuity that compromises but never undermines her essential decency and morality.
Any hope of success as a smuggler requires that Maria lie with a straight face under extreme stress. Before flying to New York with trumped-up papers and cash, she trains for the job in practice sessions by swallowing large grapes that are the same size as the drug-filled pellets she'll carry in her stomach. Once she has mastered the technique, she gulps 62 pellets, along with medicine that slows the digestive system. If a single pellet breaks inside her, she's told, she will die of an overdose. And if she excretes any pellets before arriving on New York, she must immediately clean and re-ingest them.
Maria's journey from Bogotá to New York in a plane with three other smugglers is one of the tensest flights ever filmed. Upon her arrival she is pulled aside, interrogated and threatened with being X-rayed. Only her pregnancy prevents her from being internally examined and arrested.
In the film's ugliest scenes, Maria and two other women are roughly hustled into a car by thugs and driven to a sleazy New Jersey hotel, where they're dosed with laxatives and held prisoner. If one pellet breaks or is found missing, death is certain. If she escapes, she is warned, deadly reprisals will be taken against her family. Among the three other smugglers on the flight, one is incarcerated at the airport, while Maria's clinging best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), who signed on to the program, and Lucy (Guilied López), an experienced smuggler with relatives in Queens, make it as far as New Jersey.
But the unpredictable story, which involves several cruel surprises, doesn't end there. Maria winds up in Queens, temporarily sheltered by Lucy's pregnant sister, Carla (Patricia Rae), and her husband in their tiny, overcrowded apartment. The movie offers a pungent and sympathetic look at the closely knit Colombian immigrant community, whose neighborhood leader, Don Fernando (Orlando Tobón), is a middleman among the immigrants, the drug lords and the sympathetic employers who help new arrivals get a foothold in the United States.
''Maria Full of Grace'' sustains a documentary authenticity that is as astonishing as it is offhand. Even when you're on the edge of your seat, it never sacrifices a calm, clear-sighted humanity for the sake of melodrama or cheap moralizing. Even the airport interrogators aren't monsters, just everyday officials efficiently carrying out their duties.
Maria's desperate decision may be reprehensible on one level. But on another, deeper level, it is an act of courageous self-assertion. You applaud every step of her scary lunge toward personal liberation.
''Maria Full of Grace'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for obscenity, violence, and scenes of drug use.
MARIA FULL OF GRACE
Written (in Spanish, with English subtitles) and directed by Joshua Marston; director of photography, Jim Denault; edited by Anne McCabe and Lee Percy; music by Jacobo Lieberman and Leonardo Heiblum; production designers, Monica Marulanda and Debbie De Villa; produced by Paul Mezey; released by HBO Films and Fine Line Features. Running time: 101 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria), Yenny Paola Vega (Blanca), Guilied López (Lucy), Jhon Alex Toro (Franklin), Patricia Rae (Carla), Wilson Guerrero (Juan), Jaime Osorio Gómez (Javier) and Orlando Tobón (Don Fernando).Continue reading the main story
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