'Maria Full of Grace' is a film far from the one I expected, and I don't mean that in a bad way. Despite its drama/thriller labelling it is completely ordinary in the exposure of some remarkable, and rather shocking events. By avoiding the cliches and conventions of a genre the impact is far stronger. By making the characters, and even the initial setup part of normality, empathising is all the more easier, and dramatic.
In an Oscar nominated performance, Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Maria Alvarez, a stubborn but spirited seventeen year old living in rural Colombia with her mother, grandmother and sister, who has just given birth. She brings in money by stripping the thorns off roses, but it is tiresome and monotonous work. When Maria falls pregnant and her boss is unsympathetic, she quits. But her family rely on her for money.
By pure luck, she meets a man who offers her work as a 'mule', transporting drugs to America by swallowing them. One of the film's most impressive attributes is the astonishing attention to detail in revealing this process. The audience watch intently as Maria must learn to swallow over 50 pellets of cocaine, and we learn the dire conseqeunces of a lost capsule - or in worst case scenario, a ruptured one.
The direction is of the understated style rather than flashy or elaborate. It is simple, unobtrusive, but effective in hitting home the tension of a whole different world that Maria, unfortunately, chooses to live. She is a victim, but willingly entered into her contract, and the shady outlines of good and evil in the screenplay enhance the film's realistic approach.
Moreno's performance is definitely the heart of the picture. Maria is a teenage as stubborn as any other, but the fear in her realisation of a horrifying underground world is expertly conveyed. She is bound to break under the pressure. The cast are uniformly good, but Moreno is a standout.
If the film has faults, they are limited to some narrative tangents that don't make for a cohesive picture. While the process of transporting the drugs is meticulously unveiled Maria is a bit too quick in finding her feet and rebelling against her boss, and her pregnancy is given less focus than it deserves - it could have made for a pivotal emotional persuasion for Maria.
None of those are major flaws, I'm merely commenting that 'Maria' isn't a perfect film. It is still a marvellously well acted and sensitively shot tale of the risks people expose themselves to in hard times. The characters are realistic, and the balance of powers fair. 'Maria Full of Grace' is affecting and powerful in its portrayal of a woman who makes mistakes, but desperately wants to do good.