It’s another Hollywood film dealing with the topic of drug trafficking. But Maria Full of Grace, under the capable direction of writer Joshua Marston, has eschewed the usual cocktail of sex, violence, moralising and Hollywood melodrama in favour of a simple plot focussing on the (albeit predictable) plight of drug mules trafficking between Colombia and the USA, where riches are promised.
Catalina Sandino Marino plays Maria Alvarez, a 17-year-old Colombian girl with few prospects working on the production line of a flower plantation. Maria plucks thorns from roses that are destined for the homes of the elite and wealthy – homes that, at best, she might get to clean in a future life.
But Maria finds herself jobless when she allows her feisty temperament to flare, resulting in her quitting her job after being refused a toilet break by her foreman. This leads to further tension at home as Maria’s mother and sister insist that she asks for her job back as they are relying on her income to keep their four generations of family living in the same house off the breadline.
Worse, she is two months pregnant to a boyfriend who offers nothing more than the prospect of a loveless marriage. She is in danger of repeating the cycle – her sister is already a single mother with a young baby, no job and without prospects.
So sets the scene for Maria’s introduction to a “recruiter” – a suave young man she meets at a town dance. The next day he offers her a lift on his motorcycle to town so she can find work. En route he offers an attractive proposition – the chance to travel and earn thousands of dollars for simply delivering goods to someone in the USA.
Maria Full of Grace doesn’t indulge the usual stereotypes. Maria isn’t portrayed as a vulnerable innocent and the main drug trafficker isn’t portrayed as a gun-wielding gangster, but rather as avuncular and businesslike – and for that the film should be commended.
But characters are insufficiently developed, and Maria’s plight fails to engage or engender empathy. If Maria doesn’t get caught at US customs, great! But if she does, well so what? She knew what she was getting into, didn’t she?
The film is predictable, for there are only so many possibilities for a drugs mule, and we are conveniently spoon-fed them all. To facilitate this we are introduced to Maria’s friend Blance, a surly, overweight girl with even fewer prospects than Maria, and to Lucy, already a mule once but who survived to tell the tale. A contrived outcome detracts from a film that could otherwise have been inspired and engaging.
Nonetheless the film is well acted and its lead Marino is well deserving of the many awards she has already collected for this, her first main role. The film, mostly in Spanish (subtitled) and shot in a documentary style, is well intentioned and offers a balanced view of an important and politically charged topic. Maria Full of Grace is certainly watchable, but it’s not as compelling as its writer/director might have hoped.