The American Nightmare | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The American Nightmare

"Maria Full of Grace" is available on home video and DVD.

The drug drama, a filmmaking genre that has recently soared in popularity, is a rather precarious sort of film to make. It risks presenting desperate, unlikable characters, depicting their struggles too graphically (or not graphically enough), glorifying the use and distribution of drugs, or bearing down on audiences with politicized messages. "Maria Full of Grace," the debut feature from Joshua Marston, flawlessly avoids the pitfalls of its drug-related material to reign as one of the best films from last year.

"Maria Full of Grace" is essentially the character study of a 17-year-old Colombian girl named Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Working long hours at a dead-end job, struggling to help support her financially besieged family, and pregnant by a boyfriend she knows doesn't love her, Maria dreams of escaping to America to pursue a better, more prosperous life. She gets her opportunity, sort of, when an acquaintance propositions her to fly to New York while carrying heroin to be picked up and sold there. She will be transporting the drugs inside her stomach.

Maria soon encounters other women involved in the drug-running (called "mules" for the burden they endure and the cargo they carry, much like the animals), who share her apprehension about their dangerous "work." Once the women complete their journey to New York, matters are complicated when one of them becomes sick after a heroin pellet bursts inside her stomach. Viewed as little more than a container, carrying a child possibly doomed to similar hardships and tortures, Maria must reconcile her desire for betterment with the unsavory choices she has made for the sake of a little money.

It is impossible to discuss the skill with which "Maria Full of Grace" handles this very heavy subject matter without noting the film's mesmerizing lead performance. Catalina Sandino Moreno, very close to her character's age at the time she portrayed her, is strikingly convincing and totally unforgettable in her first (and, to date, only) film. While this is probably the best female performance seen in any 2004 release, the low profile of the movie itself and the fact that it is subtitled have caused Moreno to be overlooked by many awards committees, which is a shame. Many scenes and moments occur with very little or no dialogue, and Moreno communicates a wealth of emotion using her eyes, facial expressions and body language alone. This sort of intricate, nuanced acting (the other actors are quite good as well) brings a stunning level of authenticity to the picture.

Coupled with Moreno's capability is Marston's camera, which captures the film's events in such a minimalist, matter-of-fact manner that the proceedings frequently acquire the texture and urgency of real-life events. While the movie's material is shocking, its presentation is subtle, even delicate, refusing to be showy or exploitative about its horrors. Each time Marston (who wrote the script) ratchets up the tension or throws a new dilemma at his heroine, the experience becomes more complex without feeling even slightly contrived.

The film's ending, which manages to be totally surprising yet wholly inevitable, provides hope without ignoring the tragic circumstances leading up to it. Maria makes many choices in the film (some of them smarter than others, but all utterly real), but her last one makes for one of the most satisfying finales of any film last year. "Maria Full of Grace," a triumph of independent cinema, is haunting, suspenseful, thought-provoking and impossible not to recommend.

The movie will be screened at Parkway Place Theatre on Monday, Jan. 17, at 7:30 p.m., as part of Crossroads Film Society's series of independent films. It is also available on home video.

Previous Comments


a great, emotionally wrenching , movie. Netflix has it, not sure about BB.


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