Maria Full of Grace (Maria, llena eres de gracia)

"Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee…" There’s probably no prayer as widely recognized in the Western world as the Hail Mary. It’s the key prayer in the Rosary; some believe that each time they say a Hail Mary they are giving her a beautiful rose and that each complete Rosary makes her a crown of roses.

It is fitting, then, that Maria, the 17- year-old title character in Maria Full of Grace, works in a rose processing plant in Colombia, stripping the thorns from the stems before the flowers are packed for shipping. It’s dreary, tiresome work, supervised by an unsympathetic and demanding boss who cares only about production quotas, not about the well being of his workers.

Maria seems to be the only member of her household (mother, grandmother, sister and sister’s infant) bringing in any money at all; her family holds her responsible for their support. She’s trapped in her oppressive job, because there are no others. Then she finds she’s pregnant by her boyfriend, Juan, who has the decency to ask her if she wants to get married. But they do not love one another and cannot figure out a way they could live that would work for both of them.

Catalina Sandino Moreno’s already widely praised performance as Maria is both sensitive and luminous, bringing genuine humanity to a character that has been programmed to represent the stories of many such poor women, trapped in hardscrabble lives with few alternatives open to them. These are the women who become the prey of Colombian drug dealers who employ them as "mules," transporters of drugs that have been packed into lactose pellets and ingested, to be recovered when eliminated after a flight to the United States.

It’s dangerous work–should a pellet break, the drug released into the woman’s system can prove fatal. There’s always the chance of being caught by customs agents or being double-crossed by the dealers who receive the shipment. Once involved, the women are kept in line with threats about what will happen to their families if they don’t do as they are told.

Writer/director Joshua Marston, here making his feature debut, offers a straightforward script that has the ring of truth to it. It almost has the feel of reportage–making its points, building its case, and noticeably lacking in irony or complications. At the same time, it avoids mawkishness and sentimentality, sustaining a restrained, observational tone. Marston, as director, draws naturalistic performances from his cast, presenting the story in a direct, chronological exposition that draws the viewer step-by-step into the seemingly ineluctable fate of the "mules"–beasts of burden caught in the trap of poverty without opportunity. "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound," observes Paul in Romans. Full of grace, indeed.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.