A film by Joshua Marston
Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) de-thorns roses at a flower plantation in a small Colombian town. She recently learned that she is pregnant by her boyfriend whom she does not love nor does he love her. After being poorly treated by her employer, Maria quits her job and needs to find work. Maria helps to support her family, which includes her sister and nephew. Her sister doesn't work. The only job options are to return to the flower plantation or travel many miles away to get work in a city. She meets a young man named Franklin (John Alex Toro) who suggests another option: Maria could work as a mule.
A mule is the person who transports drugs from Colombia to America. In the case of the mules in "Maria Full of Grace", the mules swallow 60 or more pellets filled with heroin and transport the drugs inside of the mule. There is still great risk: the mule can still be caught by customs and submit to an X-Ray which will reveal the pellets; a pellet can break open inside the mule, essentially sentencing the person to death; or the mule can lose a pellet by using the bathroom. Losing a pellet can result in horrible consequences for the family of the mule, as the drug lord threatened Maria and her family. American may be the Land of Opportunity, but "Maria Full of Grace" shows why a Colombian girl with no criminal leanings would choose to enter this life. The opportunities are simply not there in Colombia. A mule could buy a house for her family with just one paycheck.
This film does not shy away from graphically showing us what can happen to those who traffic drugs across the border. We see every possible consequence to being a mule, from the good to the horribly bad. While Joshua Marston does not hand us a moral judgment on Maria, I don't see that there is any way that he is giving any sort of approval to the life of a mule, either. I just know that those characters which chose to continue in that life are not going to have an easy or very long life. Sooner or later time and reality will catch up. The mule is a beast or burden and will not long live a life of luxury.
Catalina Sandino Moreno did a fantastic job as Maria. It is difficult to believe that this was only her first role in a movie (much like Bryce Dallas Howard in "The Village", only this movie is actually good). Moreno is so self assured in "Maria Full of Grace", but also frightened or unsure when circumstances call for it. We get why a basically moral young woman would make the decision she did. For Maria being a mule is not entering a life of crime, but rather an opportunity in a land of no opportunities. Moreno truly is the star of this movie and I would love to see her nominated for this performance.
"Maria Full of Grace" is one of the year's best films and it is moving, heartbreaking, and even uplifting. Second time director Joshua Marston looks to have a very good future ahead of him if he can keep making movies as good as "Maria Full of Grace". The story and the performances really make this foreign language movie shine. Grade: A