Thursday, November 25, 2004

"Maria Full of Grace": A Review

Although I haven't explored the cinema to any great depth in this blog, I am a zealous (read: pathetic) film buff. It is my hope to devote a good amount of Cutting to the Chase (lucky you, dear reader ... or should I say, Mom) to all things cinematic.

And as we approach the end of 2004, I wanted to drop a few reviews of some of my favorite films of the past year, movies that really took root in my subconscious and lingered for a while.

On that note... my review of the exceptional "Maria Full of Grace" ...

Maria Alvarez is as complicated as any 17-year-old girl teetering between her teen years and adulthood. She is smart, but prone to stubbornness and rash decisions. She is generous to her friends, but quick to pick fights with her family. As the title character in the astonishing “Maria Full of Grace,” she boasts a flesh-and-blood complexity that makes all the more riveting her journey from a small town in Colombia to the perilous world of international drug-trafficking.

Let’s get to the bottom line first. “Maria Full of Grace” is a powerful, gripping motion picture deserving of a wide audience. It’s easy to see why this debut by first-time director and writer Joshua Marston won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) bristles at her poverty-stricken life in Colombia. She works at a flower plantation, pruning the thorns off roses and forced to share her meager paycheck with her grandmother, mother, sister and baby nephew. Her boyfriend (Wilson Guerrero) has gotten her pregnant and halfheartedly proposes marriage, but Maria refuses since they’re not in love. Things get worse. She abruptly quits her job after a supervisor berates her over one too many bathroom breaks.

At a dance, Maria meets a guy named Franklin (John Alex Toro) who tells her about a job in Bogotá promising more money than she could ever hope to make otherwise. And so Maria becomes a human “mule,” someone who swallows tiny packages of cocaine and heroin to smuggle them past U.S. Customs officials and into New York. Once in the United States, Maria and her fellow mules – her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) and Lucy (Guilied Lopez) – will be hustled off to a sleazy motel room to wait until they excrete the drugs.

With the feel of a documentary and in painstaking detail, Marston reveals this netherworld without resorting to easy moralizing or melodrama. If a single pellet bursts inside Maria stomach, it will mean instant death. If any of the 62 pellets is accidentally excreted before the mule reaches her destination, the contraband must be cleaned and re-ingested. Of course, there is also the challenge of getting past U.S. law enforcement personnel who are not so naïve as to let teen Colombian girls flit into New York without interrogation. Even after a movie summer that boasted some terrific thrillers, few films in recent memory have matched “Maria Full of Grace” for pure suspense.

Moreno, a beautiful and charismatic Colombian actress, is revelatory as Maria. She has the rare gift of projecting both strength and vulnerability, and she inhabits the role with raw elegance. Between Moreno’s performance and Marston’s understated screenplay, we are presented with a heroine who is sympathetic without being particularly likeable. Her options in Colombia are limited, but we do not get the impression that drug-running is her only possible recourse. Still, we find ourselves empathizing with Maria even as she carries a bellyful of drugs that could threaten the life of her unborn child.

Such ambivalence is part of what makes “Maria Full of Grace” so extraordinary. If big-budget Hollywood had told this story, it would have made Maria a saintly ingénue and added a few mustache-twirling villains of the drug cartel. But here everyone, even the drug-trafficking thugs, have their reasons for behaving the way they do. The result is a film that rings with authenticity: real people, real choices and real consequences.


At 3:10 PM, Blogger RedDirt said...

Chase is one of those film critics you really wish some big newspaper or magazine would pay attention to.

Thankfully, you can now access his reviews right here -- which is the beauty of the blogosphere.

So maybe it's better to watch the mainstream media implode in this arena as in all others (including political coverage).

While Frank Rich pretends to offer solid cultural criticism in the New York Times, you can ignore that nonsense and log on to "Chase Cuts" instead, where you'll find much more relevant and pithy commentary.

Kudos, Chase.


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