There’s nothing political or activist about Maria Full of Grace, which is just one more extraordinary aspect of an extraordinary film. It could have served as a plea to legalize drugs that are now illegal; it could have called for wiser and more effective drug interdiction. But instead of focusing on what could be or what might be, it’s only concerned with laying out what is, with a clear-eyed realism that’s devastating and mesmerizing in its simple, unembellished authenticity. In almost documentary fashion, it restricts its point of view to the intimate and the personal, avoiding commentary on larger issues, so it’s conceivable that those on both sides of the drug-legalization conundrum may find fodder for their arguments.
It’s hard to see how, though.
What I mean is this:
I’m of the opinion that legalizing most intoxicating substances now outlawed would solve more problems than it might cause, that as long as the demand for these substances exists, prohibiting their legal manufacture and sale only drives their production underground, spinning off more dangerous crime and diverting police resources from other more pressing matters. And as long as there’s money to be made in this clandestine market, desperate people will be there to make it.
Like Maria. She’s a smart, ambitious 17-year-old, but there are no opportunities for a young woman like her in rural Colombia. Her job, stripping thorns off roses at a flower plantation, is miserable, low-paying, repetitive, mind-numbing work performed under the tyrannical eye of a boss from whom workers must ask permission to use the bathroom. Her days begin before dawn with a long bus ride and end with her turning her paycheck over to support her mother and her sister and infant nephew. So it hardly seems like a worse prospect when, through a friend of a friend, Maria learns about a much better job, one that pays extremely well and involves travel, an otherwise unreachable glamour for someone like Maria: smuggling drugs. Heroin or cocaine, it doesn’t matter — for one round-trip to New York, she can earn $5,000, several times what she’d be able to make in an entire year at a legitimate job. It’s dangerous, true: there’s the risk of getting caught by customs agents or even dying from a pellet of drugs bursting in her stomach, but the rewards — and not just the financial ones — are high.
Morality doesn’t enter into the equation here. No matter what your perspective on the rightness or wrongness of drug use or drug legalization, this is what is — Maria Full of Grace is “based on 1,000 true stories,” and the film takes no sides, neither condemns Maria for her crimes nor applauds her for being daring or brave, merely exposes us to a state of affairs that any reasonably well-informed person knows about intellectually but has never encountered up close. Even the agonizingly extended scene in which Maria swallows, over the course of 24 hours, 62 pellets of an unnamed drug — gagging on them at first and then, as they get easier to ingest, making her belly so uncomfortably full that it has to be massaged to make room for more — is so played so straightforwardly that it’s easy to swing wildly in your reaction to it, from disbelief at Maria’s stupidity to admiration for her determination.
The remarkable unsentimentality of the film is a joint achievement of first-time writer/director Joshua Marston and Catalina Sandino Moreno, in a stunning debut, as Maria. Theater-trained, she is a natural and unaffected presence before the camera, and as a native of Bogota, she’s on fairly familiar ground. But the genuine sincerity the film manifests is extraordinary considering that Marston, a comparatively privileged white boy from Southern California, is not of the many-faceted cultures he is depicting; that he gained the trust of locals in South America and in insular immigrant communities in New York City — the film was shot on location — is a testament to his power to reach people and find truth that bodes well for his future as an artist.
If there’s anything political in Maria Full of Grace, it comes in its unspoken reminder that the world is full of Marias, the restless and disaffected who will go to great lengths for freedom and self-determination. I suppose it’s possible to witness Maria’s noting of cheap, out-of-season roses for sale at a Queens bodega and conclude that Hey, roses are not illegal and she was legitimately employed and who said the world was fair, anyway? The far more reasonable conclusion seems to me, however, to be that Maria may have been just as exploited running drugs as she was stripping thorns, but she had a helluva lot less control over her destiny with the flowers. Right or wrong, it’s what is.