Maria Full of Grace

Engrossing drama expertly directed and memorably acted.

Fine Line Features – In Catholic school we prayed the "Hail Mary, Full of Grace" ending with "Pray for us sinners, now and forever. Amen." In "Maria Full of Grace" writer/director Joshua Marston ("Bus to Queens") takes the flip side of "Midnight Express"(1978) to create a cinema verite version of distaff "mules" who don't suffer the outrages of "Express's" Turkish prison but who do endure one of the most harrowing depictions of drug smuggling ever involving innocents. For those young women "Hail Mary" seems not enough to help.

Maria from Colombia (gifted newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno) agrees to transport drugs in her stomach to New York. Marston develops the story meticulously to show her as a talented 17 year old who sees beyond her village, slacker boyfriend, and dependent family to a better life than cutting thorns off roses at a local business. She is the rose who agrees, somewhat unbelievably given the dangers, to be a mule.

In one of the only Catholic iconographic moments, she ingests small bags of cocaine as if they were communion. Marston's detailed eye is not so much interested in religious motifs as he is in fully detailing the characters' lives in impoverished Colombia, the claustrophobic flight with other mules, and Maria's gymnastics in the rest room (Those of us who have tried to perform any intricate movement in these little prisons know what I'm saying). The scene in New York with wary customs agents is a classic of terror and cool, played with superlative understatement by Moreno. Her difficulties in the big city are less believable by the realistic standards Marston has already set.

"Maria" could be seen as primer for muling, so carefully crafted are the details, or an allegory about how poverty and crime corrupt the best and the brightest. Most of all, it is simply engrossing drama expertly directed and memorably acted. "Midnight Express" might scare the bejesus out of you, but "Maria Full of Grace" will cure you of any desire to forget your night prayers in favor of certain damnation.

In "Proverbs" is found the parallel: "So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man."