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Maria Full of Grace is a competent, convincing, and emotional movie about a girl who becomes a mule in the Colombian drug trade. Not bad for a couple of first-timers.

Turning Into a Mule

Maria contemplates her fate in the film's iconic scene
Maria contemplates her fate in the film’s iconic scene

Before she becomes a mule, Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) works at a rose plantation in Colombia, de-thorning them for export. It’s an unglamorous job. And even if the pay is okay, the pricks (including her boss), and the quotas are hard to work with. The first signs of morning sickness slow her down, and when her boss pushes her, she throws up on the flowers. It’s the last straw, and she quits.

If she only had to take care of herself (and her unborn child, which took her by surprise), she would be okay. But her mother, her sister, and her niece all rely on her to bring some money into the household. Since she can’t go back to the rose plantation, she heads to Bogotá to see a friend. On the way, she meets someone even more interesting.

Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro) tries to pick her up on his motorcycle. When he hears she needs money, he introduces her to a man who hires mules. “How’s your system?” he asks bluntly. If she accepts the job, Maria will have to swallow large rubber pellets full of cocaine and fly to the United States. It’s good money; enough to buy a humble house in Colombia. She decides to take the job, risking prison (if caught) and death (if even one of the pellets opens in her stomach).

The Scene

The “highlight” of the film — the scene you will remember forever — is handled very well by rookie director Josh Marston. The soundtrack fades back to almost silence as Maria watches the supplier carefully prepare the pellets. The rubber comes from the fingers of latex gloves, which are then filled with, presumably, cocaine. The pellet is sealed and pressed into shape by a machine. With only yogurt, anesthesia, and water, Maria has to swallow 62 of these things, each about the size of half a roll of nickels.

After a squirm-inducing five minutes, Marston follows Maria on to the plane, where her physical discomfort, and the tension of having a stomach full of poison are palpable. And when the plane lands, the tension only increases as the customs agents eye all the Colombian tourists very carefully.

This travel sequence is one of the tensest in any movie you’re likely to see this year. It’s more subtle than something like The Bourne Supremacy, but every bit as effective on an audience.

Maria y Blanca en el EEUU

There is more to the movie than its unforgettable scene. Newcomer Moreno makes Maria strong, smart, headstrong and occasionally naive. Her tense relationship with her mother and sister is convincingly bitter, and yet they are able to convey that family ties bind tight enough to keep Maria from simply walking away.

Her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) contrasts well with Maria. Blanca is quick to develop a sense of self-importance, maybe even glamor, by being in the drug trade. She’s less wary of the risks, maybe because of her youthful sense of immortality. Blanca makes Maria look level-headed and wise, particularly when things go wrong.

A third of the movie takes place in the U.S., and has an interesting exploration of the immigrant experience. The Land of Opportunity doesn’t look so golden from the inside of a sleazy motel; the streets of a “Little Colombia” part of New York are just as grimy as they are anywhere else. And yet, people find opportunity here, so much so that they leave their homes and families for a piece of the pie.

A Thousand Stories

Maria Full of Grace doesn’t earn the highest praise because there are some contrivances and some conventional storytelling devices — just enough to remind you that this film was written by someone. The drug trade has thousands of stories to tell, and Marston works in as many as will fit. One senses that what Maria sees of the drug trade has been compressed from the stories of hundreds of mules. In fact, the movie’s marketing slogan basically admits this: “Based on 1,000 true stories” So when yet another characteristic horror befalls a character, the audience can become disengaged.

But if Marston’s zeal in telling the story is a flaw, it’s also a boon. Maria Full of Grace feels very authentic. One can see the ingenuity that the spiral of drug running and drug enforcement has wrought. Both the suppliers and the immigration agents are much smarter that you’d see in a Hollywood movie, and they ring true.