Maria Full of Grace, Joshua Marston's new film starring the revelatory Catalina Sandino Moreno, is a film that takes great pleasure in silence, for it knows the understanding that comes with silence is far greater than what words can express. This Sundance Film Festival hit has the authenticity of a documentary, which, combined with Moreno's phenomenal performance, carries the viewer further than one would think possible.
As the film opens we see 17-year-old Maria at work stripping thorns off roses in a poor town in Colombia. She has a boyfriend who has gotten her pregnant, but they do not plan to marry. Although her family needs her income, she quits her job because she hates her boss. After getting a taste for Maria's life in Colombia, it is easy to see why when offered the chance to earn great sums of money, Maria jumps at the chance. The only catch is that she would be a mule, smuggling over 60 pellets of wrapped heroin into the U.S. by swallowing them.
After suffering great agony on the journey, Maria is accosted by the customs officials. She cannot properly explain why she is here, but at this moment viewers will realize how desperately they want her to succeed and continue on, and herein lies the true success of Maria. The documentary-like feel of the film places the viewer firmly in Maria's position, her battle now their battle. It would be very easy for the director to show why Maria should get caught, the criminals that would prosper, and the lives that would continue to be ruined by the heroin. But by expressing the universal humanity of the story, Maria succeeds.
This success is very much indebted to Catalina Moreno; her accomplishment is truly phenomenal. The subtleties of her acting in the film serve to transport the viewer's emotions from ones of disapproval to sympathy towards Maria. We want her to be safe, but that's not how life is, especially for a drug trafficker. When Moreno is onscreen, the viewer is instantly drawn to her, not because of flashy acting but something more difficult: the power and subtle grace which she bestows on Maria. It's absolutely deserving of a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Although there are no outright references to religion, there is a notable connection to Catholicism with the title. The Catholic Hail Mary prayer goes as follows, "Hail Mary, Full of Grace. Blessed are you among women..." Maria, as the title suggests, is full of grace although it is not in the orthodox sense of the word. It would be easy to write her and all the other women like her in the film off because of their jobs, but this film digs deeper. In refusing to editorialize yet exploring all of the complexities of the situation, one comes to understand how relative grace is, and how Maria is the perfect example for the word.
Throughout Maria there is a heartbreaking honesty to the filmmaking?through every struggle along the way you feel how desperately she needs to succeed, for herself, for her family in Colombia, and for her baby. The tagline for Maria Full of Grace is "Based on 1,000 true stories." Maria is a composite of the thousands of real people all over the world so desperate to better their lot that they risk their lives with unfathomable acts. Maria is the debut feature film for both director Joshua Marston and Catalina Moreno, and it tackles an incredibly difficult topic and succeeds brilliantly. One can only hope their future films can match the quality and originality of this one.