- Desperate for a better life, Maria and Blanca pack deadly amounts of drugs inside their own bodies for transport to the U.S.
Winner of the Dramatic Audience Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Maria Full of Grace is an uncomfortably realistic look at a 17-year-old Colombian woman who, desperate for a job, agrees to swallow capsules of heroin and transport them to New York. Although a work of fiction, the film (in Spanish, with English subtitles) evinces the power and grit of a documentary, thanks to an impressive performance from first-time actress Catalina Sandino Moreno and assured direction from writer-director Joshua Marston, also making his feature debut. Be forewarned: Scenes of the protagonist learning to swallow the drug pellets will make many viewers queasy. Rarely has the power of suggestion been so unsettling.
Maria Alvarez (Moreno) is a spirited young woman who lives in a small rural community outside Bogotá. She spends her days stripping thorns from long-stemmed roses at a commercial flower plantation. The work is mind-numbingly dull and pays meager wages, but those wages support not only Maria but her entire family: a mother, grandmother, sister, and infant nephew, all of whom live under one roof.
Maria's life outside work is equally unfulfilling. Everyone around her, from her family to her boyfriend, Juan (Wilson Guerrero), to her best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), seems to just accept life as it is, whereas Maria yearns for something better. Complicating matters, she suspects that she is pregnant.
Fed up with the way she is treated at work, Maria impulsively quits her job, much to her family's consternation. In a country where 80 percent of the rural population lives in poverty, prospects for finding more work are slim.
Through an acquaintance, Maria learns of a lucrative but dangerous form of employment: transporting drugs from Colombia to the United States. So-called "mules" must ingest upwards of 100 pellets -- two-inch-long rubber capsules filled with heroin or cocaine -- and then get through the airport without raising the suspicions of immigration or drug officers. The risks are great: arrest and incarceration -- or death, if a pellet breaks in your stomach. But a single drug run can net the mule $5,000, which is nearly three times the average annual income in Colombia.
Maria befriends Lucy (Guilied López), who is about to undertake her third trip as a drug carrier. She turns up on Maria's flight -- as does Maria's friend Blanca, also a mule.
The situation begins to unravel shortly after takeoff, when Lucy becomes ill. Once in New York, she encounters suspicious customs officials, and the drug contacts assigned to meet the girls play rough. Afraid for her life, Maria seeks out Lucy's sister, Carla (Patricia Rae), who has been living in the city for several years but knows nothing of her sister's involvement with drug traffickers. Maria herself must find the inner strength and resources to deal with the precarious position she's been thrown into.
Moreno shared the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival with Charlize Theron of Monster -- quite an accomplishment for a performer in her first professional acting job. It is not an easy role. Maria is a complex character, and this is her story first and foremost.