You are what you ingest

Maria Full of Grace

Catalina Sandino Moreno may look like a younger, less zaftig J-Lo, but Maria Full of Grace is no Gigli matter.

Catalina Sandino Moreno may look like a younger, less zaftig J-Lo, but Maria Full of Grace is no Gigli matter.

Rated 4.0

People in the covert commerce of drugs are squeezed into alliances and associations that, much like terrorist cells, must be kept isolated from one another to ensure that one arrest does not threaten the entire network. One cog in this well-oiled machine is the human mule, whose charter is to physically transport these illicit products across international borders from producer countries to mind-numbingly lucrative consumer markets. Writer-director Joshua Marston, in his first feature film, escorts us into the life of one such teenage Colombian mule with startling, nonjudgmental detail and harrowing clarity.

Maria Full of Grace is a tense, barebones tale of socioeconomic entrapment, escape, risk, deception, determination, desperation, threats, violence and exploitation. It paints distinguishable human faces on, and fleshes out, what we normally know only as common criminal statistics. And it moves along fluidly without standard-issue Hollywood embellishment or sensationalism.

The Maria of the title (played by Catalina Sandino Moreno) is an impulsive 17-year-old flower-plantation laborer in a small, rural town outside Bogotá, who strips thorns from rose stems under a dictatorial supervisor who treats her with contempt. She lives with—and resentfully must use her income to help support—her mother, unwedded sister and nephew. She is pregnant by a boyfriend she does not love and who does not love her; he shares a house with nearly a dozen other family members. She sees her life entering the fast lane of a lifetime of poverty and misery, and she decides to alter her future orbit.

Maria shocks her family by abruptly quitting her job after a clash of will with her boss and decides her best option is to visit a friend who is working as a maid in Bogotá. A young man she meets at a local dance offers her a ride to the big city first and then an opportunity to work as a “swallower.” Her job of “body packing” would be to ingest dozens of heroin capsules made from the severed fingertips of surgical gloves, fly to an international destination and literally excrete the packets onto the drug market. Her payment would be $5,000, an amount many times the average annual Colombian income and one that could change her life forever.

Marston develops the story as a sort of mule procedural manual that gradually and organically begins to ooze danger and conflicted emotions. He had conversations with hundreds of people, from actual jailed mules to Colombian immigrants in Queens and airport customs inspectors, to feed authenticity into his script. And he uses the camera as a fly-on-the-wall observer rather than for artificial dramatic enhancement.

Marston spoon-feeds viewers the instruction and training invested in the activity (the female mules practice by ingesting whole grapes) as he illuminates the seductive as well as the callous and violent elements of the milieu. Mule handlers calmly downplay the risk and emphasize the payoff of the task at hand. Drug thugs at the receiving end of the route are not above cutting open the stomach of an overdosed carrier to retrieve their product. And this contrasting manipulation and intimidation emanates a sort of horror-film stench of decayed souls.

Moreno is pitch-perfect as the fiercely independent, contradictory, flawed Maria, who seeks a brighter future for herself and her unborn child. She is gradually exposed to and may soon be consumed by the cancerous tentacles of drug trafficking, and she begins making some tough decisions about the value of her own soul. She exhibits an aura of credibility that increases in complexity as her compassion and humanism are tested. And her efforts are complemented by naturalistic performances from the entire cast.

Charles Bowden, in his revelatory narco-trafficking exposé Down by the River, sums up America’s pitiful war on drugs, the true mother of all wars, rather succinctly: “Nothing that creates hundreds of billions of dollars of income annually and is desired by millions of people will be stopped by any nation on this earth.” Maria Full of Grace shows us not only how this trafficking is executed but also how wide and mainstream the complicity in this business has spread.