Stubborn As a Mule
There is no irony in 2004 sleeper Maria Full of Grace/María, llena eres de gracia. The NY airport sign means exactly what it says behind the heroine as she turns around at boarding check and lets her only friend head back alone to Bogotá. “It’s what’s inside that counts” on two levels, that of her brave heart and that of the fetus in her womb whose sonogram image she caresses.
Nor does this low-budgeter succumb to rose-colored sappiness, for with no job, skills, family, contacts, English, or documents, María Álvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) faces a forbidding future. Countrywoman Carla Díaz (Patricia Rae) delivered a pep talk about staying in America for opportunities for one’s children, but the story intuitively leaves that open as the seventeen-year-old joins several million other illegals.
First-timers Álvarez and writer-director Joshua Marston deserved their many nominations and awards worldwide, but the entire cast of Colombian actors -- filming was actually in Ecuador and Queens, New York -- contributes to the handheld sense of authenticity. Taking his cue from a Brooklyn neighbor’s tale of amateur “mules” used to smuggle drugs, he manages the tale with documentary-like camera distance while yet drawing the audience into the dilemma of one particular young woman who is legion, the have-nots desperate (and naïve) enough to dare all.
Pregnant by the boyfriend (Wilson Guerrero, as Juan) who calls her stubborn and on whom no love is lost, restless María falls into the bad graces of her mother and single-mother sister Diana (Johanna Andrea Mora) when she quits a job removing thorns from rose stems. The house they share with grandma is actually quite decent -- and the mean streets of New York do not ring realistically nasty, either -- but the girl white-lies and sets out for work in Bogotá.
She is taken to that capital by Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), a boy met at a dance who introduces her to a trafficker (Javier, by Jaime Osorio Gómez), who pays per “film roll” smuggled to New Jersey. Female mules swallow some sixty cocaine-filled latex glove fingers -- males nearly twice that -- so a gagging María practices on grapes under Lucy Díaz’ (Guilied López) guidance.
On her first-ever flight, she recognizes three others like her, including her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) and Lucy. Suspicious U.S. Customs Inspectors (Ed Trucco and Selenis Leyva) are on the point of X-raying her drug-filled stomach but realize she is pregnant and, unaccountable in this post-9/11 world, release her. The unfamiliar fourth girl is detained, but the three friends get through and are picked up by two callous thugs (Juan Porras Hincapie and Oscar Bejarano) who will wait until the “pellets’ are excreted and weighed. Things go fatally wrong, and a fleeing María and Blanca must fend for themselves within the informal network of legal and illegal Colombians in Jackson Heights. Neighborhood families and contacts are kind but cramped for space and understandably wary of the two friends with different personalities.
If homes and streets are nicer than one expects of verité, in compensation there are no cheap frills of mountains and skyscrapers. The situations and pressures faced strike true and can be multiplied many thousand-fold. Not an ordinary coming-of-age, Maria Full of Grace is, rather, a clear picture of the economics that drive the hopeless many to take risks in the enrichment of the few. It acquires additional relevance in light of this country’s political hot potato of immigration reform.
Not what some might dismiss as bleeding-heart liberalism, the film fairly captures the confusion of those plunked down in foreign, often hostile environments. Motherhood-to-be steadies the heroine, but, on her lonesome, nothing is a given, and strong resolve may well not turn out to be enough.
(Released by HBO Films and rated “R” for drug content and language.)