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Thread: REVIEW: Maria Full of Grace

  1. #1
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    REVIEW: Maria Full of Grace

    Idealized realism

    by Chris Knipp


    On one level, Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace is a beautiful, pure first film about a girl who goes from pulling thorns off roses in a flower factory to immigrating illegally to America via being a drug “mule” carrying heroin in her stomach from Colombia to New York City. It’s also a somewhat peculiar effort. A film like Gregory Nava’s 1983 El Norte, with its myriad details of a long trek by a pair of young Mayan Indian peasant siblings from Guatemala to LA, doggedly depicts the nitty gritty of becoming an “illegal alien.” Maria Full of Grace isn’t like that. It tells the dramatic, tense story of the girl’s dangerous trip, and a few hectic days in Queens, and then it leaves her, seemingly free to remain in the US—but with the realities of her life in the new land still unknown.

    Marston has worked on a little piece of ivory, like Jane Austen, instead of achieving the vast scope of the 1990 British miniseries Traffik and Soderbergh’s 2001 American clone of it, Traffic. He hadn’t the means for such a devastating and complete depiction of the global drug exploitation process. Perhaps it's not his small scale so much as his idealization of the heroine that really limits this film. But what neorealist hasn’t an idealistic message to pitch?

    There's an undisguised religious element in how the heroine and her situation are idealized. Both Maria and her fellow “mule,” Lucy (Guilied Lopez) are as beautiful as madonnas or the Mona Lisa. The poster of the film makes the heroin pellet held toward Maria’s mouth as she gazes upward look like a communion wafer. Maria is “Full of Grace,” the title echoing the words of the Angel Gabriel repeated in the Rosary: “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with Thee.” “WHAT’S GOOD IS WHAT’S INSIDE,” says a huge sign in the background in one of the final shots. Maria is special. In a way Marston has had it both ways: he has made a realistic socially and politically conscious film (all in Spanish, using authentic settings and actors) but he has excused his heroine from the consequences and made her into a secular saint as painted by some seventeenth-century Spanish master. He has made drug running okay, because it’s a flight to freedom and a better life – some day, maybe, if not for Maria, at least for her unborn child.

    Maria isn’t like the humble strugglers of El Norte; neither is she like the real-life hero of Alan Parker’s 1978 Midnight Express, who was plainly choosing to do something illegal when he didn't have to. Billy Hayes tried on his own to smuggle two kilos of hash on an air flight out of Istanbul taped to his body and wound up spending five years in a foul Turkish prison. Hayes took no greater risk than Maria, though; he just was less lucky, as are Lucy in the “shotgun” heroin run (where a group of mules go on the same flight), who dies when the drug dissolves in her stomach, and another nameless woman who’s caught in Customs and led away in handcuffs.

    Marston’s title tips us off to his angle. His star, Catalina Sandina Moreno, has said, “I always felt like grace for Maria is something inside of her that has always been with her. From the first moment that you see her smile, she has the grace inside. . . The last shot of the film, you see her just glowing--she's a warrior, she's a survivor, and it's because of that grace.”* Realistically, Maria’s full of heroin (so what’s bad is what’s inside), but this is not how the filmmaker or his star ultimately see her. The film is graphic in depicting how she swallows the dangerous, nauseating condom pellets stuffed with the drug and taking a commercial flight to New York – a process that’s also an eye-opener to Colombian audiences, who only know about all this by hearsay or newspaper accounts. But Marston built his film not so much around the process as around Moreno. He interviewed 800 women and when he found her, he has said, he knew she was the one. Maria Full of Grace is Joshua Marston’s love song to this beautiful young woman, his protégé, with whom he has been seen speaking intimately in Spanish in many interviews – in which interviews, however, Marston repeats all the same formulas, and says nothing about his relationship with Catalina Sandina Moreno, who has come to America not by swallowing heroin but by making a film about swallowing heroin. A Colombian, she has moved to New York since the making of Maria.

    Coming into the US without permission is something that thousands, millions of Latin Americans have been forced to do by the dishonest US immigration laws. Being a drug “mule” is only one of the more dramatic and risky ways of doing it – but the reality, shown in the film, is that many get caught and go to prison, and many have a pellet break inside of their stomachs that kills them. Maria somehow is both a part of the struggle, and above it.

    Maria’s also full of something else: she’s pregnant, and that’s the reason why, though the customs people are suspicious and search her, they don’t do an X-ray, once a urine test has shown her condition. Why don’t they just keep her and interrogate her, as the woman agent says they can do? They have pity on her, as do the drug handlers she and her pal Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) run afoul of later. They’re also helped by Don Fernando, the “mayor of little Colombia” (Jackson Heights, Queens), who helps all the new arrivals and also facilitates the return to Colombia of the bodies of the dozens of mules who die enroute. Don Fernando’s part is played by the real person he’s based on, Orlando Tobón.

    However Marston’s motives surrounding his story and his heroine may be colored by wishful thinking, he must be forgiven for his youthful idealism. If this is in some ways a simplified fable, it also works as well and looks as good as it does because of the purity of the intentions. Marston is to be commended for keeping his focus; for fighting to achieve authenticity in his film; for insisting on making it in Spanish; for using real Colombians (even though they were forced to shoot in Ecuador because Colombia became too “unsafe” -- a point on which Barbet Shroeder, who shot his Our Lady of the Assassins in Medellín, could surely agree); for allowing the actors to rewrite and improvise their dialogue to make it not only more authentically Colombian, but true to their specific region; and for incorporating real people like Orlando Tobón into the story.

    Needless to say, Catalina Sandina Moreno was also worth hunting for. The previously inexperienced actress makes a luminous presence onscreen and is as realistically recessive and convincing as Scarlett Johansson was in Girl with a Pearl Earring. Equally remarkable is that this film made on a tiny budget by a recent NYU film school graduate looks so good. Obviously Marston has a future. He’s been lucky, with HBO sponsorship and Fine Line Features distribution, prizes at the Sundance and Berlin festivals, and universal praise in the reviews (if this one may be one of the most reserved, it’s by no means meant as a pan). It will be interesting to see where his luck and his various inclinations take him. Right now, so he says, they’re taking him to a family in a small town in Tennessee.

    _________________
    *Interview by Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central.http://www.filmfreakcentral.net/note...einterview.htm

  2. #2
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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    Perhaps it's not his small scale so much as his idealization of the heroine that really limits this film.

    Rather than disagree with you at the moment, I'd like you to explain how is Maria being idealized.

    There's an undisguised religious element in how the heroine and her situation are idealized. The poster of the film makes the heroin pellet held toward Maria’s mouth as she gazes upward look like a communion wafer. Maria is “Full of Grace,” the title echoing the words of the Angel Gabriel.

    Maria is no more beautiful than half the Colombian women I've met in Miami. The religious element is only made explicit in the movie poster and the film's title. I found that the film itself was more subtle in this regard. The hypocrisy of a deeply religious culture steeped in a criminal activity is never blantantly exposed, as it is in The Godfather and Our Lady of the Assassins. It is merely suggested here.

    He has made drug running okay, because it’s a flight to freedom and a better life

    The film is belatedly free of moralizing and the type of didacticism that sometimes hinders John Sayles's films. That doesn't mean Marston "has made drug running okay". Actually, one of the key "role models" and most sympathetic characters in the film is Lucy's sister, who clearly disapproves of such enterprise.

    Maria isn’t like the real-life hero of Alan Parker’s 1978 Midnight Express, who was plainly choosing to do something illegal when he didn't have to.

    Granted, her life circumstances are precarious, unlike Midnight Express's protagonist. But the script gives her at least two other options: apologize to the boss and go back to the floristeria, or work as a live-in maid for a rich family in Bogota. Incidentally, a lot of wealthy Colombian families that move to the US because of the Civil War down there actually bring their own maids. They often end up quitting once they learn enough English and opportunities present themselves. The film makes it clear that Lucy's sister managed to immigrate to the USA without having to resort to drug smuggling.

    Marston built his film not so much around the process as around Moreno. He interviewed 800 women and when he found her, he has said, he knew she was the one.

    Marston deserves credit mostly for two things: discovering Ms. Sandino Moreno and getting out of her way, and doing careful research over a two-year period in both Colombia and Little Colombia, Queens. I've read Chaw's interview of Marston (and others in the film's website and elsewhere). I agree with Chaw when he states Marston has "an ego the size of a brick shithouse". I find it so much easier to heap praise on David Gordon Green, the much younger American writer/director (George Washington) who projects a totally different personality.

    Marston is to be commended for fighting to achieve authenticity in his film; for insisting on making it in Spanish; for using real Colombians; for allowing the actors to rewrite and improvise their dialogue to make it not only more authentically Colombian

    So much so that I feel that at least Ms. Sandino Moreno should have received credit as co-scriptwriter, based on how much she seems responsible for making the dialogue so specific to Central Colombia, and to the slang used by young people there.
    By the way, one need not speak Spanish to realize that when Maria calls her girlfriend "imbecil", it should be translated as "imbecile", not "fuck you". I am honestly tired of putting up with this type of translation. It takes away from the richness of the dialogue. This is by no means an isolated instance, but one I provide for the purpose of illustration.

    *One single scene stroke a false note with both Cristi and I: There's no way that a woman with a flat stomach is pregnant with that baby shown in the ultrasound. The little New Yorker looked about two months from popping out.

  3. #3
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    Oscar: I appreciate your astute and well informed comments on the movie. I'm not sure from the way you present them if you're critiquing my review or only adding your own personal views on the movie using quotes from me as starting points. But you do clearly disagree with me at several points, so I'll reply.

    To begin with, what I said about Maria Full of Grace is just my opinion and you don't have to agree with me. I didn't expect you to, since I sensed your prior disposition to be strongly in its favor, while I believe I approached it (and continue to) in a more neutral mode.

    Obviously I think the movie is well done, the acting good, and despite the familiar topic, the point of view original. Much of what I said that may seem to you unfair I stated as correctives to many reviews I saw already in print that seemed to me somewhat excessive in their praise. I'm sure that as years go by this will seem a good little film, but not quite the exemplary effort they're describing.

    You'll have to tell me why, if Maria is like half the Columbian women you see in Miami, Marston viewed 800 candidates before he picked that one. And to answer that question about how Maria becomes exemplary and how the actress is special, you may want to ask Marston.

    As for the religous element and the idealization of Lucy and Maria herself that I spoke of, how a movie, especially an independent one, is titled and represented in posters is an important clue to how the filmmakers want it to be seen, and you seem to overlook the way Maria and Lucy are repeatedly presented in visual images that resemble portraits of Madonnas or Mona LIsas.

    If Marston had not wanted to idealize Maria, he would have chosen the more ordinary Carla to be the central woman.

    I don't get the point of your response to my comparison to Midnight Express. Of course Maria had other options than to do what she did. What is different is that Billy Hayes wasn't under pressure of economic necessities. That's all I'm saying. Your comments only bear that distinction out. And while Maria got free, even after a struggle with the local New York drug heavies and running off with Carla with the drugs, Billy spent gruelling, life-threatening years in a Turkish prison. Is that worse than becoming a house maid who may get another job when she learns good enough English? You be the judge. It's apples and oranges, really; there are key distinctions between the two cases, but drug smuggling is a terribly dangerous thing to get involved in. I brought up Midnight Express because though some think it's too sensational, it's nonetheless true, and I think it tells a more complex and involving story.

    You seem to denigrate the director in favor of his "star," which I think is going overboard in another way. Most reviews have praised the movie itself, and I think justifiably. Marston is responsible for its being made. And I don't at all agree with you that Marston's ego is as large as Chaw says. Chaw is going overboard. There's nothing in his interviews to make Marston look like an egomaniac or a jerk. He''s an ambitous young man who takes himself a bit too seriously, that's all.

    Marston certainly didn't consciously set out to make drug running okay, but as I said, in the movie it's the path to a better life for Maria. Why you use this as an opportunity to "heap praise" on David Gordon Green escapes me. I don't share your enthusiasm for Green or care who has the best sized ego anyway, but Green has shown more evidence of a distinctive style and had more opportnities to do so. I don't think the situation is ripe for a comparison of the two directors, not yet, anyway.

    There's no way of knowing for sure, but from reports, Sandino was not the only one who contributed to dialogue rewriting, and therefore I'd say she's getting credit enough.

    I'm not qualified to evaluate the subtitles but experience with subtitling of other languages suggests that it's often wise not to be literal, and that professional subtitlers know their trade very well, and when they make choices that we wouldn't, they have good reason. "Imbecil," "fuck you," is only one example.
    I can't comment on the ultrasound either, but there are numerous points that strain credulity. Some however turn out to be true to life according to interviews -- for example the New York police collaborating with Don Fernando to immediately locate the bodies of mules who have perished on the way to New York. What I'm more sceptical about is the custom's officers' leniency with Maria when she's so suspicious, though statements by the real "Don Fernando" Orlando Tobon suggest police can be sympathetic to the plight of the drug mules, at least after the fact.

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