Wasting away in a Columbian flower sweatshop, 17-year-old Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is tired of her work, her family, and the unresponsiveness of her boyfriend. When she learns that she's pregnant, Maria discovers a quick, but dangerous, way to make big bucks: volunteer as a drug mule. Asked to ingest small heroin pellets and fly to New York for retrieval, Maria agrees, but soon realizes just how hazardous the mission can be.
Last year, Lukas Moodysson's "Lilya 4-Ever" was a powerful portrait of the hell found when a teenage girl falls prey to blind trust. It was a stark, horrific, and riveting film. The same can be said of Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace" (IMDb listing). While it doesn't follow the sexual exploitation route of "Lilya," it moves on to another experience that is shared by unfortunate souls across the world: that of an intestinal drug courier.
Marston doesn't fool around with "Maria." There's little unnecessary dramatic padding to the story, very little preaching, and he's wise enough to allow the natural horror of the circumstances these characters find themselves in to lead the way. It's a cautious, yet unforced, directing job by Marston. Not only is the film a harrowing portrait of lamentable decisions, it also appeals to that "Fear Factor" urge to stare in disbelief at what some people do to their bodies. Those with touchy gag reflexes should consider a bathroom break during the scene where Maria attempts to ingest her heroin pellets, ending up with over 60 capsules of death in her belly, right before she boards an endless, traumatic fight to New York City. It's a tremendous sequence that supplies enough tension and mouth-agape amazement for two movies.
Once the tale switches over to New York, "Maria" slips away from horror mode and begins to dig into the cold reality of what Columbian immigrants face in America. Selling the role with sublime control is actress Catalina Sandino Moreno, who makes her film debut with "Maria." The character requires a burning interior monologue that the audience is never privy to, and Moreno communicates that frustration and dread with frightening accuracy, never succumbing to self-pity, for Maria is not an innocent character. Maria is head strong, and she's chosen this life, not forced into it. Moreno and Marston are wise to keep the material away from uncomplicated sympathy grabs. It's a wonderful performance and an outstanding film.
Filmfodder Grade: A-