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Maria Full of Grace (2004)

María Full of Grace, Maria, llena eres de gracia

These pellets contain heroin. Each weighs 10 grams. Each is 4.2 cm long and 1.4 cm wide. And theyre on their way to New York in the stomach of a 17-year-old girl.

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 101 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

John Sayles' 'Men With Guns' (1997) and John Malkovich's 'The Dancer Upstairs' (2002) are bold because they are US productions shot almost entirely in Spanish (with English subtitles), for a market that is notoriously averse to anything that is not in English. 'María Full of Grace', the debut feature of Joshua Marston, is similarly shot in Spanish – even in its second half, set in New York City's Little Colombia, there is little English spoken – but the film is bolder still for portraying a heroin courier as a sympathetic figure, an illegal immigrant as a human being, and a third world character as a complex and multi-faceted individual.

In her small Colombian village, 17-year old María (Catalina Sandino Moreno) has few prospects. Most of the money she earns packing roses goes towards the maintenance of her unemployed sister's baby, she and her boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero) do not love each other, and she is pregnant. Indignant at the way she is treated at work, María quits. On her way to Bogotá looking for employment, she runs into a casual acquaintance who suggests she become a mule. María is attracted by the considerable money on offer, but first seeks out Lucy (Guilied López), an experienced courier, to find out about the exact risks involved, so that she takes on the task with her eyes fairly wide open – unlike her more naïve friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega). Yet nothing quite prepares María for the dangers, drama and dreams that await her when, with sixty-two narcotic pellets besides the baby in her belly, she steps off the plane in New York.

In plain, non-judgmental detail, 'María Full of Grace' offers a step-by-step account of the experiences of drug mules – from the manipulative way that the women are recruited, to the painful process of swallowing whole the sausage-sized pellets, and from the frightening encounters with customs officials to the awful consequences of a pellet leaking its contents into the stomach. Yet while it does not shrink from laying out all the risks and indignities undergone by drug couriers, the film is also frank about the potential rewards for them – and in perhaps its most slyly provocative manoeuvre, it draws a suggestive comparison between two of Colombia's cashcrop exports to the US. Of course, unlike the rose, heroin is illegal – but 'María Full of Grace' makes it clear that the workers in both industries are terribly exploited, so that it is easy to empathise with María's decision to gamble everything on the more perilous, but also more lucrative, option. After all, her enterprising spirit reflects no more and no less than the American dream.

With its unobtrusive camerawork and naturalistic settings, 'María Full of Grace' could almost be a journalistic documentary, were it not for the central character of María – impulsive, stubborn, resourceful, proud, determined – who guides viewers through its dramatic events while filling the film with her humanity, flaws and all. In her first ever rôle, Catalina Sandino Moreno is simply a revelation, and one can only imagine that she, like the character she plays, has a bright future ahead of her in America.

It's Got: A script based largely on improvisations and anecdotes from the Colombian cast; a central character who, like her namesake from the New Testament, is just looking for a safe place to have her baby; a revelatory lead performance; and everything you ever wanted to know about being a drug mule.

It Needs: To be seen in a double-feature with Steven Soderberghs Traffic (for a compelling twin corrective to the rhetoric of the US War on Drugs).


The bottom end of the heroin trade gets a human face in this compelling immigrant's tale.