Movie Review: Maria Full of Grace 7/16/04

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Adam J. Smith, DRCNet's former associate director and founder of this newsletter, contributes this review of the award-winning, about-to-be-released film by Joshua Marston. Adam can be reached at [email protected].

In an early scene in writer and director Joshua Marston's "Maria, Full of Grace," the title character and her boyfriend are making out behind an abandoned building on a Colombian hillside.

"Where do you want to go?" he asks. Their choices are few -- his family's home, or hers. "We can go to my house," he suggests.

But Maria has other ideas. She looks skyward, and, as her nervous boyfriend watches, makes use of tenuous crags and footholds to scale the side of the building to the roof. "Come on up," she urges, but he's not biting, and sulks off without her rather than risk a fall.

As Maria reaches the roof, we see her world through her eyes for the first time. What Maria sees from her precarious perch is a broad vista that reaches far beyond the impoverished town below. Her boyfriend might think she's crazy, but Maria's courage and restlessness give her a perspective that makes the prospect of a life of poverty and desperation all the more unbearable. Marston uses this first person view several times in the film to show us how Maria, beautiful, intelligent and headstrong, yearns to see a world far broader, less limiting and more appealing than her circumstances might suggest.

Maria's combination of fearlessness, intelligence and persistence are precisely the character traits that we recognize as the marks of a successful, even entrepreneurial personality. In the context of the struggling Latin American nation turned narco-state by the United States' failed drug prohibition, however, these qualities are just as likely to lead directly to an entry-level position in the drug trade.

Drug prohibition alchemizes Latin America's 4,000 year-old native coca crop into one of the most valuable substances on earth -- as long as it can be processed and transported across national borders, and specifically into the US. The unrivaled economic opportunities that are among the unintended consequences of US drug policy tempt large numbers of Colombia's most ambitious and visionary young people to forego that nation's limited legitimate economy toward the siren song of fast and easy money.

Prohibition, of course, has always perverted economic incentives; at home as well as abroad. The most successful prohibition era entrepreneurs in the 1920's and '30's went on to sire presidents and corporate CEO's. Today's drug trade attracts plenty of life's losers, to be sure, but also some of the best and the brightest among certain geographic and socioeconomic groups. Entry level positions are easy to find, and the chances of success, at least for awhile, are far better than the chances of a bright, courageous girl like Maria back home in the flower plantations of Colombia.

While 80% of rural Colombians live in poverty (Colombia's annual average income is around $1,800) a single successful run will net a drug mule between $5,000 and $8,000. The same economics apply to America's inner cities, where the most conspicuously successful entrepreneur in the neighborhood is all too often a high-level drug dealer. Given these choices, many young people with the brains and the wherewithal of a CEO will choose the business closest at hand and easiest to break into.

As for the Latin American cartels and their eager pool of mules, in fiscal year 2003, 145 drug mules were arrested at Kennedy Airport in New York. Each of those mules carried around a kilo of heroin or cocaine in his or her system. That's just over 300 pounds. Of an estimated $46 billion annual US market in these substances. The impossibility of controlling such lucrative and easily concealable commerce means that the prohibition economy will flourish long after the careers of today's drug warriors have ended.

But I digress.

When Maria finds herself pregnant, the limitations she has been bucking against are suddenly more constraining, and more urgent. Unwilling and unable to countenance the rigid rules, mind numbing labor and overbearing boss at the large flower plantation where she works, Maria quits her job. When her mother and sister insist that she go back and beg for forgiveness in the face of the family's dire financial situation, almost anything -- including the risk of swallowing dozens of tightly-packed pellets of cocaine in exchange for a small fortune waiting on the other side of US Customs -- seems a more reasonable choice.

Maria Full of Grace is Joshua Marston's first feature-length film, and marks the brilliant beginning of a very promising career. Filmed on location in Ecuador (when political violence in Colombia made filming there impossible) and Queens, New York, Marston mirrored the strong-minded traits of his title character by insisting that the film be made in Spanish. Holding out on behalf of the story's integrity, the young filmmaker bravely turned down earlier offers to finance the movie in English. Marston's commitment to his vision has paid off, as we are treated to a story whose believability and dramatic tension is made all the more palpable by a Colombian cast telling a distinctly Colombian story in its natural tones.

Marston's casting, a mix of experienced and novice actors, was also inspired. In the beautiful Catalina Sandino Moreno, who makes her film debut in the title role, Marston has found a true star. Her freshness and dexterity are breathtaking as she portrays both the subtle and not-so-subtle desires and contradictions of a 17 year-old girl standing at the precipice of an adulthood, which seems, at first, more limiting than promising. Moreno's character is not the only one brought to New York by Marston's vision, as after the filming the actress herself relocated from her native Colombia to pursue her craft. After being recognized for her performance at film festivals around the world, including a Best Actress award in Berlin, her future looks bright indeed.

In addition to his star, Marston coaxes terrific performances from novices Orlando Tobon, who plays travel agent and neighborhood resource Don Fernando, and Virgina Ariza, as Juana, Maria's best friend. Tobon is a travel agent in his real life, and the vital role that he plays in his Colombian immigrant community in Jackson Heights, Queens is vividly and touchingly brought to life in his character.

It is not often that a foreign language film makes a commercial splash in the US, but Maria Full of Grace might well overcome that hurdle. Moviegoers who take the risk will be treated to one of 2004's most compelling films, and one of the year's standout lead performances.

"Maria Full of Grace," has taken home Audience Awards at both the Sundance and Los Angeles Film Festivals, along with a slew of other awards around the world (including Best First Film and Best Actress). The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 19th, and nationally on July 30th. Spanish, with English subtitles, visit http://www.mariafullofgrace.com or http://www.mariallenaeresdegracia.com for further information.

Visit http://www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=3262035 to listen to a National Public Radio interview with Maria Full of Grace lead actress Catalina Sandino Moreno.)

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Issue #346, 7/16/04 In the Wake of Blakely: Senate Committee Hearing Seeks Sentencing Fix, 2nd Circuit Seeks Quick Supreme Court Hearing | Bryan Epis Appeal On Hold Pending Supreme Court Raich Review | Movie Review: Maria Full of Grace | Nevada Secretary of State Says No to Three Ballot Initiatives, Including Marijuana Measure -- Sponsors Go to Court | MPP Pulls Out of Arkansas Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaign -- Locals Vow to Continue Ballot Qualifying Effort | Newsbrief: Delaware General Assembly Calls for Repeal of Higher Education Act Anti-Drug Provision | Newsbrief: Fiji Marijuana Farmers Resist Police Raids | Newsbrief: Drug Czar Flack Barthwell Steps Down in Senate Bid | Newsbrief: Iran Allows Harm Reduction Efforts in Heroin Fight (Unofficially, Of Course) | Newsbrief: Hiring Freeze at Federal Bureau of Prisons, Layoffs Possible Next Year | Newsbrief: Another Pain Doctor Indicted -- Could Face Death Sentence | Newsbrief: 20th Anniversary of Law Raising Drinking Age to 21 | This Week in History | Media Scan: Reason on Kerry, Daily Camera on New Prohibition | Job Opportunity: Communications Assistant, Drug Policy Alliance, NYC | The Reformer's Calendar
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