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Maria Full of Grace

The Globe and Mail

Written and directed by Joshua Marston
Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez, Jhon Alex Toro and Patricia Rae
Classification: 14A
Rating: ****

I know what you're thinking: not another worthy, subtitled, critically acclaimed independent feature about the miserable lives of the suffering poor. It's the summer, for heaven's sake -- a time for entertainment, not enlightenment.

Well, listen up: This movie did not get four stars for the political sensitivity of its message or its luscious cinematography (though it has both). It got four stars because it's a fantastic film, and if you're sick of sitting through adolescent comic-book-inspired crap, I strongly suggest you go and see it.

Maria Full of Grace tells the simple tale of a teenage girl who quits her job dethorning roses in a factory in rural Colombia and travels to Bogota to become a heroin mule. It is not a true story, but it gets to the unglamorous truth of the underground narcotics trade.

What a pleasant surprise to see a drug movie that does not employ any of the usual plot devices and stereotypes to sway its audience. If the word "heroin" summons to mind a montage of pimped-out dealers, drug lords in linen suits, briefcases full of money and gorgeous young hipsters jabbing themselves with needles, Maria Full of Grace will make you think again.

This is a movie about the politics of heroin trafficking that is mercifully devoid of the pornography of addiction. There is not a single scene of drug use in the entire film. Despite its subtlety (or, more correctly, perhaps because of it), Maria Full of Grace provides a moving critique of the heroin trade as well as a powerful portrait of an unjust global economy in which the lives of the poor are exploited and often discarded for the recreational purposes of the rich.

Unsurprisingly, this accomplished first feature by Brooklyn writer/director Joshua Marston comes to theatres already laden with prizes after winning the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance, two major awards at the Berlin Film Festival and six more at Cartagena. And the hype is more than deserved. Marston has done on an independent shoestring what few Hollywood directors can manage on $20-million.

He has invented a compelling central character and conveyed her story with grace and simplicity. The result is a film as unpretentious as it is irresistible.

The no-frills narrative is set in motion when 17-year-old Maria Alvarez quits her job and discovers she is pregnant by a boyfriend she does not love or want to marry. Determined not to be trapped by the future and terrified of turning out like her sister (whose baby son Maria has been supporting with her factory job), Maria accepts the offer of a ride to Bogota on the back of a handsome stranger's motorcycle. When her mysterious new friend offers her a job smuggling drugs into the United States for a fee of $5,000, Maria quickly accepts. In a country where the average annual income is roughly a third of that amount, how could she not?

From here our heroine is quickly ushered into the perilous underworld of Colombian drug trafficking. The camera lingers on her as she ingests, with great difficultly, 62 thumb-sized rubber pellets filled with heroin, knowing that if even one bursts inside her she will die. Her journey to New York is far from uneventful. Along the way she makes a series of moral decisions that will determine the course of the rest of her life.

While Marston's smooth hand guides us through the film, it is his lead actress who really entreats us to follow. Catalina Sandino Moreno captivates with her wide-open face and unself-conscious delivery. Luminous and spunky by turns, she carries herself with a sense of justice and moral rectitude reminiscent of a heroine of a 19th-century novel. Imagine a drug-smuggling Jane Eyre, if you can.

As the feature-film debut for both Marston and Moreno, Maria Full of Grace has launched two promising careers. It's also just a darn good flick.

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