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4.4 out of 5 stars46
4.4 out of 5 stars
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"Maria llenas eres de gracia," is one of the outstanding films of the new century, and one of the best I've seen in months. Joshua Marston, who wrote the script and directed, took a commercial idea--that of telling a story about the "mulas" who smuggle drugs into the US by swallowing pellets of cocaine or (in this case) heroin wrapped in latex which they later excrete. Should one of them burst before it is passed out of the body, it is likely the mule will die. It's a risky business in more ways than one, and only somebody desperate or foolish would do it.

So the first thing that Marston must do is establish Maria's character in such a way that we can believe she would do something like this. She is, on the one hand, an ordinary 17-year-old Columbian girl who works stripping the thorns from the stems of roses in a factory. She lives at home with her mother, sister and her sister's baby. She has a boyfriend. She has to work to help support the family. On the other hand she is a headstrong person, a pretty girl with a head on her shoulders.

But Maria is not exactly desperate. She is a bit of a gambler, somewhat foolish, no doubt, but she is also a strong person with great personal integrity. Marston allows us to see in the beginning of the film that she will take chances that others won't. She climbs up onto the roof of a building, a climb her boyfriend is afraid to make. We see her tell her boss (more or less) to take this job and shove it when he won't let her go to the bathroom. And we realize shortly thereafter why she needs to go to the bathroom more often than usual. We watch her tell her boyfriend about her predicament, and she does it in such a way that we can tell that she is searching for how he really feels. And when she finds out he doesn't really love her, at least doesn't love her the way she wants to be loved, she leaves him.

But now she is in a fix. Her job helped pay for the family's bills. Now the situation is set. Her character is set. The premise of the film can unwind: and so she meets a young man on a motorcycle who tells her how she can make some serious money smuggling drugs into the US.

Imagine how the average Hollywood director would fashion a movie from such a premise. There would be brutality, gun fights, car chases. Cardboard villains would exploit Maria and others like her. There would be some heroics and perhaps a knight in shining armor would save Maria.

But that is not how Marston plays it. He opts for realism and he doesn't wallow in the violence or the exploitation. He keeps the focus on Maria and her personal struggle to find herself and to deal with the circumstances she has gotten into. The characters are real, the situations are authentic, and the details are closely observed and realistic. We see Maria practice swallowing large globe grapes. We see the people in the drug-smuggling business and some of the other mules. We see the security people at the airport and the young men who watch the girls until the pellets are passed. There is no glamor among these characters. It is clear they are patterned after real people who could actually be in this ugly business. And in the end we see the triumph of Maria's character.

What makes this such an outstanding movie is not only the careful, clear and veracious way that Marston tells the story, but the compelling performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno who plays Maria. She is a very talented young actress who has the kind of beauty that suggests something close to nobility of character, if I may use such an old-fashioned phrase. It is this quality of hers that Marston captures and emphasizes. The result is one of the most arresting performances I've seen in quite a while. Moreno appears entirely real, completely divorced from any phony celluloid heroine. She became to me--and this is what all great actors can do--someone I know, someone I care about, and I was filled with emotion as the movie ended.

"This is a movie about a girl becoming a woman," is the way Moreno expressed it. Marston puts it this way, "I realized...I was making a film about a girl who was doing something universal in trying to figure out the meaning of her life." This is really what the story is about: becoming a woman in this world of risks and trade-offs, of dangers and obligations.

A movie that is a work of art and worthy of something more than the diversion of an evening should affect the viewer emotionally, intellectually and artistically. Maria Full of Grace is such a movie, a movie that comes along perhaps once a year, or perhaps only once in several years. It's that good.

By all means see this for Catalina Sandino Moreno who was nominated for Best Actress by the Academy in 2005 but lost out to Hilary Swank for her performance in Million Dollar Baby (2004). And see it for Joshua Marston who made it real.
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on 1 February 2009
I've watched this film in its entirety and parts of it about 6 tmes and it never gets old. There are new layers in it every time I watch it. If you are interested in the cocain drug trade, or young people in Andean countries this is worth both time and money. This example is supposed to be from Colombia, but the topic was too touchy to film there so it was allegedly filmed in neighbouring Ecuador. Up and coming Colombian actress Catalino Sandino does a fine job and the scenes from Jackson Heights are authentic.
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This film proved to be something of an education for me. Having never been involved in drugs, I've not really thought about the poor saps who bring them into the country (be it here in the UK or over the pond, or anywhere). This film uses documentarial first hand experiences to build a film which humanises the faceless world of the drugs mule.

The story of Maria, the young woman (17) exploited in the workplace and overly depended on by her family for her wages is gripping. Pregnant and desperate to escape the existence she has in order to find life, she finds herself and her friend involved in the ugly world of drug trafficking. It's from this point on that we get to see how the underworld can seem friendly enough to begin with, but the danger of the situation becomes clear when an off the cuff remark about `paying her family a visit' (and consequently naming them) is made - the film is a stomach clencher from this point on as you desperately will Maria to not come to any harm.

This is a film which allows us to see the human story behind the illegal substances on the streets. The traffickers aren't evil, they are poor people being exploited and too scared `get out'. The most disturbing scene in the film involves a trafficker called Lucy, and depicts what happens if one of the pellets opens up inside the stomach - although nothing graphic is shown, you are left in no doubt as to what has happened. This film certainly does not glamorise the drugs world.

The film threw me slightly, I knew what the film was about (it's all in the synopsis on the back of the DVD cover) - but the cover picture initially looked to me, to be depicting a scene of holy communion, the title of the film almost enforces this. But after watching this, I see it another way now.

In a nutshell: This film isn't about drugs, well, it is, but the driving force of the film is Maria and her journey. The drugs do play a pivotal role though, but not in a traditional sense. There are no scenes of drug taking - the impact of the film is how the people who carry the drugs are made to feel looked after, but soon come to realise that they mean nothing to the people pulling the strings. They are simply a carry-case, the contents of their stomachs is what is of value. A moving film, well written/directed by Joshua Marston, and with an absolutely fantastic performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno to make Maria truly believable.
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on 3 February 2010
Great film about Columbian drug mules with a breakout performance by Catalina Moreno. The film is intense, tragic and thaught provoking all at the same. The director does a terrific job of humanizing the characters and showing their hoplessness and despair. Definitely one of the best independant films I've seen in recent years.

I imported the Blu from the UK which looks and sounds great since it's not available in North American for some strange reason. There's also a very good and insightful commentary from the writer/director

Highly Recommended!!
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on 14 September 2005
Joshua Marston wrote and directed Maria Full of Grace.
He produced the first draft of the script in 2 days but by the time he had modified it and done the filming, 5 years had elapsed.And it shows.This film is a faultless masterpiece that
depicts the full horror of women who act as "mules," taking drugs in their stomachs from Columbia to the United States.
Catalina Sandino Moreno,who plays Maria,is superb in the lead role,and the story is told from her perspective.
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on 24 February 2005
Catalina Sandino Moreno recently won a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her stunning portrayal of Maria in Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace." This was a debut performance for Ms. Sandino Moreno, a native of Bogotá, Colombia, who developed an interest in acting while in high school. She subsequently studied theater and acting and caught Marston's eye when she auditioned for this part. He took a risk by casting the inexperienced young actress as Maria and, in return, she delivered - bringing tremendous depth to the complex and demanding role.
Seventeen year-old Maria Alvarez works on a flower plantation outside Bogotá, stripping thorns off roses in preparation for shipping. It's a dead-end job and her future doesn't look to improve much. A spirited, independent young women, with a sense of adventure, she is obviously bored with the work and her abusive supervisor, disenchanted with her immature boyfriend, and fed-up with her family, which receives almost her entire paycheck. When Maria discovers she is pregnant, she accepts the offer to carry drugs to the US as a mule. There is no way, however, that she could have imagined the nightmarish and threatening world she becomes involved with.
Films about the drug trade abound, from this year's "El Rey," (also up for an Academy Award), to "Traffic," "Veronica Guerin," "Trainspotting," "Blow," even 1971's extraordinary "The French Connection," to name a few. However, "Maria Full of Grace" offers a totally different perspective on the business of drugs and drug smuggling. Even though the primary focus is on the mules here, a much broader picture is portrayed. It is painful, and extremely intense, to watch the desperate Maria force herself to swallow almost 70 thumb-sized pellets filled with finely powered heroin. She takes medication first to slow her digestion, all the while under the watchful eye of her runner. The danger of discovery and death is ever present, as is the potential risk to her family if anything goes wrong. A Colombian mule can earn between $5000. to $8000. per trip. Considering that the average annual per capita income is around $2,000, one gets a general understanding of why the girl might imperil herself to this extent. I felt a terrible sense of sadness throughout much of the movie. This particular film does conclude on a hopeful note, I think - for Maria anyway.
Marston, who directed from his own script, takes us through the entire harrowing run in a manner so realistic that I felt I was watching a documentary at times. The building tension on the commercial plane flight to New York had me literally on the edge of my seat. And Catalina Sandino Moreno is a natural - absolutely gifted! This film is outstanding - certainly one of the best movies to be made on the subject. The supporting cast also deserves kudos, with special mention to Yenny Paola Vega, who plays the tenacious Blanca, and Orlando Tobon - who is not a professional actor. His character, Don Fernando, is taken from fact not fiction. In Jackson Heights, Queens, Orlando Tobon is called the "mayor of Little Colombia." He makes his living as an accountant and travel agent, but he also serves his community as a social service counselor and all-purpose guide to many of the thousands of Colombian immigrants who come to live in his ethnically diverse neighborhood. Tobon is also known as "the undertaker of the mules" for his work helping families repatriate the remains of Colombians who die smuggling drugs into New York.
JANA
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on 26 August 2005
I love it when you see a film you didn't expect to be good and it suprises you...it reminds you why you love to watch film. This movie took a traumatic and difficult subject matter and handled it with such sensitivity you cannot walk away without feeling genuinely moved. The story; a young 17yr old Colombian rose trying to grow but being de-thorned by the cultural traditions of her society, then attempts to escape by carrying drugs into America, manages to work on a multitude of layers without having the pretentious feel of many of its class mates. You can take what you want from this movie whether it be a gripping story or as I damning inditement into modern Western values - but either wany you must watch and decide for yourself.
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The day after I watched the DVD of MARIA FULL OF GRACE, it's star, Catalina Moreno, was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. I guess my viewing put her over the top.
Catalina plays Maria, a 17-year old Colombian whose life is in the dumpster. She's pregnant by her worthless boyfriend; she quits her job de-thorning rose stalks after her male boss won't let her leave the assembly line to go to the loo and vomit; her mother and self-centered sister, the latter also an unwed mother, berate her for abandoning the major portion of the family's earning power. What's a poor girl to do? Why, of course, go to Bogota and volunteer to become a "mule", i.e., someone who jets into the United States with his/her belly full of miniature sausage-shaped baggies of cocaine. After practicing swallowing large, red grapes - I would have picked those little cocktail weenies - off she goes to New York with sixty-something of the packets onboard and the promise of $5,000 when she delivers. And, as the drug middleman warns her, don't lose any on the way because "we know where your family lives". In any case, Maria finds herself on the international flight with three other mules. Only one comes back.
With her Oscar nomination as Best Actress, is Moreno in the same league with the likes of Imelda Staunton (VERA DRAKE), Annette Benning (BEING JULIA), and Hilary Swank (MILLION DOLLAR BABY)? Most assuredly not. Perhaps her inclusion represents the relative dearth of great female screen performances in 2004; there's little from which to choose. However, having said that, Catalina's performance is a very fine one, especially for one so new to the Biz. A golden statue is within her reach in the future.
The creators of MARIA FULL OF GRACE remained disingenuously neutral throughout about the morality of the drug trade. Rather, the film focuses on the unremarkably commonplace economic pressures that pushed Maria, ostensibly a young and intelligent woman of otherwise average morality, into a venture that subsequently caused her so much anguish, mortal fear, and inconvenience. One would hope that the experience would make her a vocal DARE advocate, but perhaps that's too much to expect in today's world. In the great scheme of things, the causes of evil and suffering can be banal indeed, and just go on and on.
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on 1 January 2010
I generally liked this film. The story is generally credible, and the actors good.

The lead role in particular, Catalina Sandero Moreno doesn't come across as 'hollywood' instead rather down to earth which suits the charactor well.

Overall there's no attempt to make it a 'blockbuster', so no unnecessary special effects. It's not an action adventure film.

The few criticisms I have, are firstly the english subtitles can't be turned off which is frustrating when you're learning spanish. (Apparently the director shot it in spanish to help the authenticity, which is fair enough, but it's clearly aimed at middle class America, not a Spanish speaking audience).

Although the film is generally believable, and the producers claim that they based it on real interviews, etc, etc, they probably put too much in it, which detracts from the believability just slightly. I'm quite sure that many drug mules make the journey, drop off their drugs, take their money and return back without any drama. But in this film every possible 'hitch' is included in some form or other to one or other of the charactors, which does take away a bit of perspective. But not greatly, only slightly.

The other criticism I have, is the portrayal of how Colombians perceive Americans. This is perhaps in reality more how Americans believe the Colombians perceive America, rather than actually how real Colombians actually do perceive the country. I only briefly put on the Directors commentary ...the accent and american superiority complex just made me cringe... be in no doubt, the director is American born and bred, which possibly explains the American bias in places. For example when the lead charactor asks another drug mule, who's already made the journey once, what america is like, the reply was that America is 'too perfect'. This, I rather suspect, is more of a reflection of the american director's belief of how others see his country, than perhaps the actual way his country is perceived. (Guess how the film ends)

Along the same lines, I also suspect that the polarisation of how bad, relative to America, Colombia is is also for the same reasons - i.e. it's more of an American perception. It perhaps slightly overplays the poverty. This film seems to pander (possibly because it helps provide a foundation for the story) to a poor, dirty, hopeless image of colombia. Which again I suspect is more representative of American perceptions of Colombia than the reality in the country itself. Colombia has good and bad areas, as well as rich (not all from the drugs trade) and poor people, just like America has.

Overall, the story seems to subtly portray the reason for drug mules taking the risk as being more because they are in awe of America and see it as a way of getting into the country, rather than seeing it as a way of earning quick money, whereas in reality I suspect most are just interested in getting the job done, getting the money, but then crucially getting back home to their friends and family in colombia.

Interestingly, for a film that mostly does try to be fairly accurate in terms of portrayal (above criticisms aside), it interestingly misses of any hint at all of how these drugs mules might perceive the American people who, after all, are the consumers of these drugs that are being smuggled. But I suspect this would detract from the 'how great America is' sub theme. It's interesting to note that this film was produced by HBOFilms, which from my limited experience of watching HBO in the states, do tend to pander to middle class America, who might might otherwise be put off the film if it, at all, presented America in a non-ideal light.

But those criticisms aside, if you don't put the directors commentary on and just take the film as it is, Catalina Sandino Morena delivers a good, believable performance. Her Colombian roots make her fit the part well, and since she's a native (originally) the dialog is much more authentic than it might otherwise have been.

The above criticisms I make are only minor in the scheme of things, and don't overly detract from a great, mostly believable, film. (I think the only bit I didn't find believable is the encounter with the US customs - if they really thought she was carrying drugs (which they claimed they did) then they wouldn't have been so soft just because she was pregnant... it was kind of... 'we know you're carrying drugs, but did you know you're also pregant, so, ok, we won't x-ray you, so you're free to go')... and also after this unexpected delay she walks straight out of the door to where her contacts are waiting in a van - that just wouldn't happen at a real airport at the best of times, and less so when the traveller is totally unfamiliar with the place! But that's just a small part of the film.

Overall, though, a good worthwhile watch.
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on 10 March 2014
I have hesitated a bit between 3 and 4 stars on this one. The film is fine, the main part of the script is fine if the last third a bit weak but the character/background story building is I feel what really gets the film down.
There are two sides to the story:
- The process of becoming a mule (and the dreadful experiences one may go through in the process). I have never been a mule so I cannot vouch for the exactness of the description but it feels believable and achieves its goal of both disgusting us (as members of a society which makes this a possibility) and making us like the character.
- The life story of the main character, which is a really a bit of a cliche. I won't spoil the film by saying too much about it, but I cannot help feeling (yet, I have not checked) that this has been written by an US writer with an US point of view. Here the film, in my opinion is a lot weaker.

All in all, I do not discourage watching the film and I do not regret doing so myself; on top of it all, it is pretty cheap and as such definitely worth the money.
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