Maria Full of Grace

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In front of a camera, as in life, little things mean a lot. Catalina Sandino Moreno, making her acting debut as the willful 17-year-old Maria Alvarez, does little things beautifully. Constantly on her toes, her Maria learns to lie creatively in situations that might undo a less nimble spirit, and she manages this often in the same breath as spinning out rote, do-as-you’re-told memorizations. You can see Maria pulling answers out of thin air, then falling back on shorthand stand-bys when she needs to. With both her demanding family and her spineless beau, you sense Maria’s impatience, restlessness: she has too quick a mind for these dullards. Sandino Moreno’s performance combines just the right amounts of modesty and self-possession. And if her closing gesture in the film’s final frames isn’t already famous—that slight shake of her mane as she walks in the foreground—it deserves to be.

There’s also a dazzling, wordless take of Maria as she walks along a bustling Roosevelt Avenue sidewalk in Queens, New York. Fresh from a small town in Colombia, Maria speaks no English. She’s a stranger in an especially strange land, and outside one store, she spies a Hispanic youth carefully packaging boxes of roses—in essence, the same kind of job from which she fled in her own country.

This minor, fleeting sight could be an emblem for the understated authenticity of Maria Full of Grace. Writer-director Joshua Marston does nothing to milk his scenes—he trusts his material in a way that more experienced filmmakers can’t or won’t. He uses none or very few of the usual heightening tricks. Jacobo Lieberman’s lovely soundtrack guitar Marston deploys sparingly. Jim Denault’s unfussy hand-held photography reckons as intimate, never intrusive.

catalina_thumbnailBut to return to this glimpsed moment on the sidewalk. It’s the moment that sums up this film’s exciting duality. The epiphany is grim, yes, but there’s another, more prominent quality at play here, and I believe the word for which I struggle is…grace. It’s in the subtle mastery of the shots, a 21st-century neo-realism that both recalls and surpasses early De Sica, and it’s in the gift of experiencing three firsts: the debuts of Marston and Sandino Moreno as well as the portrayal of the Colombian community in America, or at least one segment of it, in a major film. Contrary to Hollywood’s manufactured lies at the multiplexes and on television, there very much is a world outside of this room, and Maria Full of Grace refreshingly, exhilaratingly opens the door.

I haven’t written about the plot as so much has been thoroughly described elsewhere regarding the events that set Maria’s path in motion and also for the reason that I abhor summarizing storylines. I will only add that it’s Marston’s restraint in depicting the physical realities of smuggling pellets of cocaine or heroin within your stomach that makes his film as powerful as it is. If Maria Full of Grace were even a shade more graphic in its disturbing subject matter, it would be too much.

The pellets—the name to me implies an object the size of a poker chip—are awfully long and bulky: fat, white layers of latex tied with dental floss into bullet shapes. They look difficult to keep down, let alone to swallow. Then there’s the indelicacy of the pellets’ eventual discharge from the person of the “drug mule.”

“We’ll be here until you shit everything out,” a thug sneers at Maria and her friends Blanca and Lucy, as he tosses the women packets of laxatives.

This is horrifying material, and I thought that if Danny Boyle or Lina Wertmuller had directed this film, they would leave nothing to the imagination. Marston revives the power of suggestion, a commodity in need of revival.

The actors, even in the smallest roles, are first-rate. Jhon Alex Toro, with his irresistible smile of large, white teeth, might conceivably charm anyone into the belief that drug smuggling is “a cool job,” as he so sways Maria. Even when Toro is off-screen, which is most of the time, it’s still possible to imagine him motorcycling through the Colombian countryside casually collecting recruits. On the opposite end of the “drug war,” Selenis Leyva and Ed Trucco are startlingly realistic as a pair of U.S. customs officers. When they interrogate Maria, I felt that Trucco and Leyva had been there before, questioning hundreds of young women in similar circumstance.

On Maria’s home front, Wilson Guerrero as her boyfriend Juan and Johanna Andrea Mora as her caterwauling older sister Diana are noteworthy. Guerrero has a fine moment as Juan and Maria squabble over whose family would be the worse to live with—his or hers. Mora, perfect as a screeching gorgon who expects anyone in her path to alleviate her self-made ill situation, gives Maria a great lesson in financial management: money can make your relatives shut up.

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Yenny Paola Vega, as the sympathetic Blanca, had never previously acted, but she’s an enchanting, impetuous, natural comedienne. Guilied López gives a haunting performance as Lucy. When López first appears, she’s leaving the same dive of a pool hall that Maria enters, and there’s a visual suggestion that the two women are doubles. The plainly dressed, naïve Maria certainly finds something intriguing in Lucy’s icy reserve, her air of elegance and sophistication. Maria, perhaps, sees in Lucy a role model of what she herself might become. In a well-tailored pantsuit, tastefully chosen accessories, and no smile, Lucy could be a young executive.

Which brings me to Patricia Rae’s performance as Lucy’s older sister Carla, a Colombian immigrant who has long since become a New Yorker. Watching Maria Full of Grace for the second time recently, I was surprised by how comparatively few scenes Rae appears in, yet she dominates the movie’s final third. An actress of astonishing presence and range, Rae, in what arguably could be the film’s best scene, describes to Maria the contradictory feelings that any young person leaving home to begin a new, and presumably better, life goes through. Maria weeps silent, genuine tears—she’s moved by Carla’s story even as she continues to conceal a few pertinent, unsavory facts from Carla. It’s a stunner that works purely on the level of Carla’s monologue, and Rae merits rarely trotted out words of praise such as magnificent and rapturous, but it also works on a darker, lonelier plateau for Maria, for the heartbreak of deceiving someone, a good person, out of sheer necessity.

A few final words about Jim Denault’s splendid photography. Although the New York sequences take place in Queens, twice we see Manhattan in the distance from a car window, and the second of these occasions is the more remarkable—the city’s tall buildings flicker rapidly past Maria’s eyes as if, well, as if images in a movie. We know that Manhattan is a squalid mess, but Maria doesn’t, and Denault’s imagery allows us to view it as she does—a temptation. – NPT

July 29, 2004

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