Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Maria Full of Grace'

Tribune Staff Reporter

3½ stars (out of 4)

When Maria trains for her new job, she swallows plump, oversized grapes whole. At first, she gags. Eventually, she forces them down.

Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is about to become a "mule"--smuggling drugs into the U.S. with a stomach full of thumb-sized capsules of heroine.

Writer/director Joshua Marston's jittery, suspense-fueled "Maria Full of Grace" takes a simple story and molds it into something eloquent and menacing.

Almost all illegal immigrant stories since Gregory Nava's "El Norte" (1983) have suffered from the same symptoms--overstated, often overreaching attempts to make U.S. audiences sympathize with purposely tragic characters.

Marston avoids this fate by following a compelling character, strong-willed Maria (made flesh by Moreno in a star-making performance). Captured in Marston's shaking, nervous camerawork, Maria--though pregnant, defiant and poor--isn't portrayed as a pawn.

When her boss at a Colombian flower processing plant refuses to let her use the restroom, she vomits on him and then storms out. Not stupid and never playing the victim, she isn't a danger magnet. If anything, she's a foil to her naïve friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), who signs on as a mule when she learns of Maria's new vocation.

Already financially supporting her mother, sister and nephew, Maria's existence is claustrophobia. Her paychecks aren't her own; her house isn't her own. Now, being pregnant, her life no longer belongs solely to her. And one dangerous, sweaty trip on a plane to the U.S. can cure it all. No wonder she goes.

When she does, of course, her world opens up and threatens to collapse--and in between Maria gulps down a lifetime of experience.

`Maria Full of Grace'

Written and directed by Joshua Marston; photographed by Jim Denault; production design by Monica Marulanda and Debbie DeVilla; music by Leonardo Heiblum and Jacobo Lieberman; edited by Anne McCabe and Lee Percy; produced by Paul Mezey. A Fine Line Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:41. MPAA rating: R (drug content and language). In Spanish with English subtitles.

Maria - Catalina Sandino Moreno
Lucy - Guilied Lopez
Carla - Patricia Rae
Don Fernando - Orlando Tobon
Franklin - Jhon Álex Toro
Blanca - Yenny Paola Vega

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