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Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a typical 17 year old girl in rural Colombia - typically poor, typically caught in a dead end job stripping rose stems in a conveyor belt job, alongside her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega). When she gets pregnant to her temporary boyfriend, Juan (Wilson Guerrero) and her boss is unsympathetic, she quits on the spot. Now jobless and ostracised by her family, Maria is offered a way out through a chance meeting with a young man (John Alex Toro), who has contacts. He arranges a meeting in which Maria is offered a job as a 'mule', carrying pellets of heroin to the US - inside her stomach. Once in New York, the simple plan is made deadly complicated by a fellow mule's violent death. Maria needs to learn how survive in a hostile environment - fast.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This multi-layered drama could well be a fact based story, but isn't. It's just one feasible scenario among hundreds played out every year as the Colombian drug smugglers recruit desperate young women as mules. Joshua Marston's screenplay, was, however, inspired by one such true story, revealed to him by a woman he met. What makes the film special is Marston's careful character construction. More interested in the way a young woman handles the dramatic shift in her life, he keeps her as the centrepiece, while the drug running is the backdrop.

Maria is feisty, but her impulsive resignation from her job is an act of struggle; she doesn't quite know what the future holds, but her nature is to flee toward the light. The irony of how she gets herself into a dark corner, is just how life can be. She is attractive and intelligent, and given a chance, she could make a much better life for herself than the one she is destined to lead in a Colombian village. She senses that, but when the chance comes to do something about it, wrapped as it is in great personal danger, her reluctance is quickly outweighed by the promise of instant fortune: US$5,000 or so is the price of a modest house in the area.

Marston never wallows in pity for her, but then neither does he present her as having even thought about the morality of what she's doing. She accepts it as the burden of life. The relationships between Maria and the other characters - her friend Blanca in particular - are superbly explored, and provide the inner dynamics of the film. The risky business of swallowed heroin pellets is shown with a matter of factness that makes the job totally unappealing, so if you're worried about the film glorifying this nasty business, there is no cause.

Catalina Sandino Moreno is striking and effective as Maria, striking a credible balance between vulnerable young woman and a capable adult; she is strongly supported by Yenny Paola Vega as her friend Blanca, whose friendship is tested through the dramas they experience. Excellent technicals complete the enjoyment of this engaging and deeply affecting film.

Review by Louise Keller:
It's not taking communion, but swallowing 62 pellets of heroin for her new role as a mule, that takes Maria on a path that changes her life. Maria is young, attractive and graced with plenty of spirit. She is one of the many young girls trapped in a claustrophobic life with no window of opportunity. Days are spent as one of a production line, de-thorning long-stemmed roses under austere authority. But for this 17 year old, there is little option for frivolity or even to spend her hard-earned wages. First in line to take her paycheque, is her family, who rely on her financial input to make ends meet and buy medicines for her sister's baby. Even the relationship with her boyfriend is joy-less, and is a liaison based on habit.

First time director Joshua Marston excels at capturing a young girl's innocence as she embarks on a life-altering journey. The combination of amateur and professional actors is a potent one; the emotions are raw and affecting. Quietly determined, Maria practices swallowing large grapes as a prelude to the daunting task of consuming the pellets. She watches anxiously as rubber glove fingers are filled and sealed. Like Maria, we sense a gagging reflex. Can she do it, will she do it? Then she reaches the point of no return.

The power of Maria Full of Grace lies in the very ordinary-ness of the characters. We can relate to all of them. Maria wants a better life; Blanca is bored; Lucy is trying to find the courage to visit her sister in New York.

In her first film role, Catalina Sandino Moreno is stunning as Maria. Her spirit lies within, and apart from one scene, when she dissolves into tears as she sits on the floor outside the New York apartment, she is self assured and assertive. She takes her life into her own hands, never wavering in the neverland of self-doubt or fear. As she sees a picture of her unborn baby on the ultrasound, there's a new expression on her face. Sheer happiness. More beautiful than the most dazzling designer gown. All the performances are strong, and there's a special connection between Maria and Guilied Lopez's Lucy. Their communication lies beyond words. The look of despair in their eyes is far more telling. Patricia Rae is terrific as Lucy's sister Carla, whose life is suddenly interrupted by the girls from Colombia.

Marston guides the story and emotional arc with great assurance, and while there is much that is tragic, the film is peppered with hope as Maria sets about to open doors to new directions.

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(US/Colombia, 2004)

(María, llena eres de gracia)

CAST: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae, Orlando Tobon, John Álex Toro, Bobby Plasencia, Virginia Ariza, Johanna Andrea Mora, Wilson Guerrero, Fernando Veasquez, Jaime Osorio Gomez, Mateo Suarez,

PRODUCER: Paul S. Mezey

DIRECTOR: Joshua Marston

SCRIPT: Joshua Marston


EDITOR: Anne, McCabe, Lee Percy

MUSIC: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman


RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes



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