The poster for Joshua Marston’s remarkable first feature, Maria Full of Grace, is disturbing and poetic. It features the face of the titular 17-year-old, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, upturned as if to receive Communion, or perhaps the less specific blessing of whoever’s handing out “grace.” And yet, what the hand holds above her is a white drug pellet — a plastic-wrapped 10-gram package of heroin, the sort carried by mules in order to get through international customs.
The image suggests the film’s central theme, that is, the pain and necessity of making choices amid a dearth of options. Seeking salvation, Maria Alvarez can’t see her way out. As the movie begins, she’s working on a flower plantation in a Colombian village north of Bogotá; she’s one of many employees on an assembly line who de-thorn and wrap up roses for sale in cities, for pennies a day. The sole source of income for her family (her mother, sister Diana [Johanna Andrea Mora], and Diana’s baby), Maria is resentful, and yearns for respite from the poverty that seems overwhelming. Each day is the same, each night offering few small pleasures, in partying with her gregarious best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) or making out with her egotistical boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero).
When Maria learns she’s pregnant, she tries at first to make a familiar and livable story out of it (“Do you love me?” she asks Juan on lunch break; “Not that again!” he sighs). With that, she makes a decision, confronting him with the news, whereupon he does the honorable thing and offers to marry her; she can move into his house, with his extended family, where her life will remain on the dire track it has followed so far — going nowhere but deeper into poverty and hopelessness. Something snaps for Maria at this prospect, and rather than doing this “right thing,” she breaks with Juan, quits her job and, quite by accident, comes on another seeming opportunity. This arrives with a good-looking biker, Franklin (Jhon Álex Toro), who suggests that she become a mule, carry rolls of film, for money, to New York (via a small town in New Jersey).
Maria knows what this means: “rolls of film” are drugs, and she understands that she will be carrying them inside, by swallowing them. Each mule is paid by the number of pellets she carries (25-50 at a time, $100 each), and each takes a risk, as being caught means prison, no help from their employer. “Are you scared easily?” asks the man for whom she’ll be working. How’s your system? Your stomach?” An experienced mule, Lucy (Guilied Lopez), offers to help her practice swallowing, whereupon Maria sees her as a mentor, the one person in the operation who treats her humanely, that is, has a conversation with her.
Once on the plane, Maria (who has swallowed 62 of those gruesome, dangerous pellets) faces more problems. Having been warned that any missing pellets — at all — will bring harm to her family, she does her best to keep them down, and when at last, she’s unable to stop a bowel movement, she carefully washes off the pellets, rubs them with toothpaste, and re-swallows them. Alone in the airplane bathroom, ugly and confining, Maria looks entirely bereft — pale, unnerved, grim. Her quest, for grace, escape, and meaning, seems as bleak as back in Colombia.
When Maria, Blanca (who has stubbornly, if understandably, followed her friend’s lead in this endeavor), and Lucy finally do make it to the States, they face worse troubles than they have imagined, at the hands of the young thugs sent to pick them up and await their “delivery” of the drugs. At this point, the visceral truth of their risk comes crashing down on the three girls (one other woman who has also been sent with them has been arrested, never to be seen again). Afterwards, the two survivors must contend with being on the run in New York, afraid and unable to speak the language, seeking help from relatives of the dead girl, who didn’t know she was a mule. Here, Jim Denault’s subtle, handheld cinematography makes clear Maria’s perspective without overstating what’s obvious: she’s in crisis, she’s coping as best she can (Moreno’s performance is also quite astounding, as her face must convey the complexity of Maria’s experience, without speaking it). Again and again, the girls make decisions (and put off making decisions, out of fear of making the wrong ones), together and apart, leading to still more crossroads, none of them offering acceptable alternatives.
Marston has said he was inspired by reading a newspaper story about a mule, and that he researched the phenomenon, spending time in Colombia as well as in Colombian communities in New York. Here he met Orlando Tobòn, a Colombian “fixer” in Queens, who helps mules out of tight spots, arranges for travel, work, and identity papers. Tobòn plays just such a character in Maria Full of Grace, and perhaps the most awful and moving aspect of this character is how well he understands the impossibility of the girls’ situations — the very image offered up in the movie’s promotional poster. Seated behind his desk, making phone calls, soliciting favors and contouring truths, Tobòn embodies anguish and helplessness, as well as determination and ingenuity. However, the system he’s battling — implacable, widespread, cruel — closes off option after option.