Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 06, 2004 11:17 pm 
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Idealized realism

On one level, Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace is a beautiful, pure first film about a girl who goes from pulling thorns off roses in a flower factory to immigrating illegally to America via being a drug “mule” carrying heroin in her stomach from Colombia to New York City. It’s also a somewhat peculiar effort. A film like Gregory Nava’s 1983 El Norte, with its myriad details of a long trek by a pair of young Mayan Indian peasant siblings from Guatemala to LA, doggedly depicts the nitty gritty of becoming an “illegal alien.” Maria Full of Grace isn’t like that. It tells the dramatic, tense story of the girl’s dangerous trip, and a few hectic days in Queens, and then it leaves her, seemingly free to remain in the US—but with the realities of her life in the new land still unknown.

Marston has worked on a little piece of ivory, like Jane Austen, instead of achieving the vast scope of the 1990 British miniseries Traffik and Soderbergh’s 2001 American clone of it, Traffic. He hadn’t the means for such a devastating and complete depiction of the global drug exploitation process. Perhaps it's not his small scale so much as his idealization of the heroine that really limits this film. But what neorealist hasn’t an idealistic message to pitch?

There's an undisguised religious element in how the heroine and her situation are idealized. Both Maria and her fellow “mule,” Lucy (Guilied Lopez) are as beautiful as madonnas or the Mona Lisa. The poster of the film makes the heroin pellet held toward Maria’s mouth as she gazes upward look like a communion wafer. Maria is “Full of Grace,” the title echoing the words of the Angel Gabriel repeated in the Rosary: “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with Thee.” “WHAT’S GOOD IS WHAT’S INSIDE,” says a huge sign in the background in one of the final shots. Maria is special. In a way Marston has had it both ways: he has made a realistic socially and politically conscious film (all in Spanish, using authentic settings and actors) but he has excused his heroine from the consequences and made her into a secular saint as painted by some seventeenth-century Spanish master. He has made drug running okay, because it’s a flight to freedom and a better life – some day, maybe, if not for Maria, at least for her unborn child.

Maria isn’t like the humble strugglers of El Norte; neither is she like the real-life hero of Alan Parker’s 1978 Midnight Express, who was plainly choosing to do something illegal when he didn't have to. Billy Hayes tried on his own to smuggle two kilos of hash on an air flight out of Istanbul taped to his body and wound up spending five years in a foul Turkish prison. Hayes took no greater risk than Maria, though; he just was less lucky, as are Lucy in the “shotgun” heroin run (where a group of mules go on the same flight), who dies when the drug dissolves in her stomach, and another nameless woman who’s caught in Customs and led away in handcuffs.

Marston’s title tips us off to his angle. His star, Catalina Sandina Moreno, has said, “I always felt like grace for Maria is something inside of her that has always been with her. From the first moment that you see her smile, she has the grace inside. . . The last shot of the film, you see her just glowing--she's a warrior, she's a survivor, and it's because of that grace.” Realistically, Maria’s full of heroin (so what’s bad is what’s inside), but this is not how the filmmaker or his star ultimately see her. The film is graphic in depicting how she swallows the dangerous, nauseating condom pellets stuffed with the drug and taking a commercial flight to New York – a process that’s also an eye-opener to Colombian audiences, who only know about all this by hearsay or newspaper accounts. But Marston built his film not so much around the process as around Moreno. He interviewed 800 women and when he found her, he has said, he knew she was the one. Maria Full of Grace is Joshua Marston’s love song to this beautiful young woman, his protégé, with whom he has been seen speaking intimately in Spanish in many interviews – in which interviews, however, Marston repeats all the same formulas, and says nothing about his relationship with Catalina Sandina Moreno, who has come to America not by swallowing heroin but by making a film about swallowing heroin. A Colombian, she has moved to New York since the making of Maria.

Coming into the US without permission is something that thousands, millions of Latin Americans have been forced to do by the dishonest US immigration laws. Being a drug “mule” is only one of the more dramatic and risky ways of doing it – but the reality, shown in the film, is that many get caught and go to prison, and many have a pellet break inside of their stomachs that kills them. Maria somehow is both a part of the struggle, and above it.

Maria’s also full of something else: she’s pregnant, and that’s the reason why, though the customs people are suspicious and search her, they don’t do an X-ray, once a urine test has shown her condition. Why don’t they just keep her and interrogate her, as the woman agent says they can do? They have pity on her, as do the drug handlers she and her pal Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) run afoul of later. They’re also helped by Don Fernando, the “mayor of little Colombia” (Jackson Heights, Queens), who helps all the new arrivals and also facilitates the return to Colombia of the bodies of the dozens of mules who die enroute. Don Fernando’s part is played by the real person he’s based on, Orlando Tobón.

However Marston’s motives surrounding his story and his heroine may be colored by wishful thinking, he must be forgiven for his youthful idealism. If this is in some ways a simplified fable, it also works as well and looks as good as it does because of the purity of the intentions. Marston is to be commended for keeping his focus; for fighting to achieve authenticity in his film; for insisting on making it in Spanish; for using real Colombians (even though they were forced to shoot in Ecuador because Colombia became too “unsafe” -- a point on which Barbet Shroeder, who shot his Our Lady of the Assassins in Medellín, could surely agree); for allowing the actors to rewrite and improvise their dialogue to make it not only more authentically Colombian, but true to their specific region; and for incorporating real people like Orlando Tobón into the story.

Needless to say, Catalina Sandina Moreno was also worth hunting for. The previously inexperienced actress makes a luminous presence onscreen and is as realistically recessive and convincing as Scarlett Johansson was in Girl with a Pearl Earring. Equally remarkable is that this film made on a tiny budget by a recent NYU film school graduate looks so good. Obviously Marston has a future. He’s been lucky, with HBO sponsorship and Fine Line Features distribution, prizes at the Sundance and Berlin festivals, and universal praise in the reviews (if this one may be one of the most reserved, it’s by no means meant as a pan). It will be interesting to see where his luck and his various inclinations take him. Right now, so he says, they’re taking him to a family in a small town in Tennessee.

[There's a good discussion of the film in its various contexts online at BlogCritics by Alan Dale.]

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