Every year, there seems to be an indie or foreign film that becomes engulfed in such a monsoon of hype that its flaws are brushed aside like fleas. These pictures aren’t necessarily bad, but they seem to me to be such critical darlings that their problems are almost completely overlooked. I found Joshua Marston’s debut, Maria Full of Grace—like last year’s The Station Agent—to be nowhere near as impressive as the word-of-mouth and reviews led us to believe. Unlike The Station Agent, I certainly didn’t dislike Maria Full of Grace enough to begrudge it its success. Perhaps some of my reservations about it won’t bother those who are more attuned to its topic matter. That said, Maria Full of Grace is strangely unemotional and flat for a character journey, irritatingly at its worst when it should be most moving. Exception: the sequences that revolve around the ingesting of drug-pellets are wrenching, as Maria (played by a quietly self-assured Catalina Sandino Moreno, in her film debut) gulps down bundle after bundle of illegal substances. Because there’s no music, excessive camera movements, or preachy dialogue (just silence, or Maria’s co-mule* Lucy explaining the proper swallowing technique, which sounds like a blowjob lesson), these moments make us feel close to Maria, sympathize with her plight and desperation for money, and shake our fists at Columbia’s corrupt system. Unfortunately, this feeling of closeness is all too rare.
Marston’s grainy compositions give Maria Full of Grace a gritty feel that’s effective in capturing both Colombia’s impoverished atmosphere and Maria’s pervasive despondency (she smiles just once in the picture), but fail to give it much of a soul. Death, isolation, despair in a 17-year-old Spanish girl in New York City…all should have evoked some sort of answering emotion, but inspired little more than shrugs from me. Despite providing a semi-detailed background of Maria’s life in Colombia (family, employment, responsibility, romantic reveries), we generally feel like we’ve read a description in the newspaper as opposed to spending time with the protagonist. Consequently, none of the ‘powerful’ sequences later on carry much heft, and in fact give the entire film a ‘blah’ sensation. Supporting characters are predominantly cardboard cutouts, and their key sequences are extremely predictable—Lucy’s impending death and Maria decision to give her cash share to Lucy’s sister come to mind. In fact, just five seconds before she does so, I leaned over to my friend and whispered, “here it comes, she’ll give Carla her share now.” Sure enough…
While watching Maria Full of Grace, I found numerous aspects of the second half extremely implausible. Some follow-up reading and discussion revealed that Marston based much of the on real interviews with international custom agents and former mules, so I’m happy to eat crow on my initial comments bashing the absurdity of agents randomly stopping Maria in the airport or the like. Still, Marston does a poor job at making moments such as these seem credible to those of us not familiar with airport regulations, even if we’re aware of the post-9/11 paranoia here in the U.S.A. The follow-up interview, where the cops question and probe Maria, reeks of contrivance, such as the moment in which she signs a consent form for an x-ray when she knows she will be found out—and then the convenient escape hatch that opens because she’s pregnant, and her stomach can’t be x-rayed in the search for drugs. (Gee, what a coincidence…). Even more troubling is the druglord back in Colombia , who’d painstakingly detailed possible scenarios to Maria before she left, neglecting to mention that she might be stopped by customs agents at any time.
Maria Full of Grace’s ending doesn’t go cliché with its message, but with Maria holding her head high and striding away from her return flight to Colombia, all in slow-motion, it certainly does cinematically. While certainly not a waste of celluloid, it definitely qualifies as one of 2004′s biggest disappointments, considering the raves I’d heard and the 98% rating on the tomatometer.