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Heroin heroine

Catalina Sandino Moreno blows away drug-trafficking clichés in Maria Full of Grace

by SARAH ROWLAND

According to Hollywood, drug trafficking is sexy. The usual rock star portrayal of a smuggler invariably involves a take on that scene in Blow, when the tanned and beautiful Johnny Depp struts through airport security with suitcases full of Bolivian marching powder as “Black Betty” blasts in the background. Nothing against that film (or Ram Jam for that matter), it’s just refreshing to see a film depict the role of a mule for what it is: exploitative and dangerous grunt work. That’s what makes Maria Full of Grace one of the best films of the year so far.

Not once does first-time director Joshua Marston veer away from the poignancy of his story to crank out some classic rock to accompany a dizzying sequence where the protagonist is racing against the clock to unload a huge shipment before the authorities and the Cartel move in.

Instead, Marston stays true to the abused victims of the South American drug trade by gently unfurling the tale of a 17-year-old pregnant factory worker named Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Like thousands of women in Colombia, she decides that transporting smack to the States by swallowing balloon-wrapped pellets is the only way to break the cycle of abject poverty.

The hopelessness of her situation is established in the opening shot, where Maria and her mother are waiting in the pitch-black early morning for their respective buses to cart them on the long bumpy ride to their soul-destroying flower plantations.

Throughout the film, which won an Audience Award at the 2004 Sundance festival, Marston maintains a straightforward sensibility, never resorting to slick, over-stylized camerawork or contrived melodrama. This stripped-down approach is exemplified in the airplane scene where the tension is so slow and knotted, it makes you squirm in your seat. The sweaty girls exchange nervous glances across the aisle, knowing that at any moment the time bombs in their bellies could detonate, or they could defecate their goods prematurely, which would put their lives and their families in danger with their predatory bosses back home. If they survive that portion of their trip, they still have to get through U.S. immigration.

Another sign of Marston’s quiet genius was the decision to cast Moreno, who won best actress at both the Seattle and Berlin film festivals. The young Colombian actress delivers a masterfully understated portrayal of a girl desperate enough to risk her unborn child’s life in order to give it a better one. Never overwrought, her character holds back mounting fears even under the most stressful situations. For instance, when the American border patrol is bullying her into allowing X-rays of her stomach, Maria’s otherwise determined brown eyes quake ever so slightly as she struggles to keep her composure.

Moreno’s grace-under-fire performance, coupled with Marston’s defused rendering of a sensationalistic subject matter, make Maria Full of Grace worthy of all the critical accolades, even if it means forgoing a collectable rock soundtrack. n

Maria Full Of Grace opens Friday, July 30