Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Review - Maria Full of Grace

Maria Alvarez (the spellbinding Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a 17 year-old Columbian girl who works a tough, unfulfilling shift at a flower processing factory. What little money she makes is often taken by her family for her unmarried sister’s baby and, as if things weren’t difficult enough for Maria, she soon finds herself pregnant. Her boyfriend Juan offers to marry her but admits that he doesn’t really love her and she walks away from him. Maria wants more than life seems prepared to offer her and is understandably intrigued when a local young man tells her about a well-paid job which involves the chance of travelling. The job is smuggling drugs into the United States.

Maria is unsure at first but discusses the matter with Lucy (Guilied Lopez) who has made the trip twice. “How did it go?” Maria asks, “I’m still here” comes the reply. Maria agrees to make the journey and, telling her family she’s been offered a job in the city, prepares for the task ahead. Maria, her friend Blanca (who has made the trip much to Maria’s anger) and Lucy board the plane for the united states, each carrying dozens of condom-wrapped cocaine pellets in their stomachs. But the ordeal is only just beginning for Maria as their plans go awry and she must live by her wits to survive in New York.

This astonishing debut feature from American filmmaker Joshua Marston has been collecting numerous awards around the globe and it’s easy to see why. The stripped-down direction focuses on character above incident and tackles its subject matter with a refreshing frankness. Marston takes a documentary-style approach to the scenes of Maria’s Columbian life, slowly building a convincing portrait of day-to-day life there. The film has a strong sense of place and the casting of non-actors, often in roles similar to their own lives, pays dividends with a number of honest, and unmannered displays, notably Orlando Tobon as a local Mr fix-it and Patricia Rae as Lucy‘s pregnant sister.

Of course, with so much of the film focusing on Maria alone, Marston’s casting of the lead role was imperative to the film’s success. After a long search Catalina Sandino Moreno, who had no acting experience, was discovered and she responds with the performance of a lifetime. She has a strong, soulful screen presence and effortlessly holds the viewers’ attention from first frame to last. Maria is beautiful, determined, fiery, stubborn and smart, and Moreno makes this complex character a fully-rounded human being who can gain the sympathy of the audience despite the illegal acts she is involved in. She fully deserved her surprise Oscar nomination and hopefully she will realise her enormous potential in years to come.

The same could be said of the man behind the camera, Joshua Marston. His screenplay is smart and well-paced and his confident direction invests the story with urgency and emotion. Marston shows his true ability during the wonderful sequence depicting Maria’s flight to the US. As she tries to stay calm on the plane the film ratchets the tension up to a gut-wrenching intensity, which Marston manages to maintain with consummate skill. Later in the film, he displays his ability to deliver a scene full of high emotion without tipping into melodrama.

Critics of the film may argue that its approach is too narrow, focusing on one character alone and ignoring the wider implications of her acts, but this is still a hugely impressive piece of work. Maria Full of Grace is a beautiful, distinctive and moving film which features numerous outstanding performances and gives us a lead character we can care about without ever excusing or apologising for her acts. Marston sheds light on the factors which force so many women down this route, but never offers any easy answers.

The end of the film is a little disappointing, but perhaps that’s because we don’t want it to end there. As the camera fades out on the defiant face of Catalina Sandino Moreno, most viewers will be desperate to know what will happen next. But what kind of life awaits Maria, and the thousands of girls like her, is anyone’s guess.