Like so many other girls in her small, working-class Colombian town, 17-year-old Maria wants out of every aspect of her dismal, pre-ordained life. But unlike her peers, who accept their fate, she's independent and sometimes defiant, and she has dreams in a place that routinely shatters them.
So one day, after she quits her job de-thorning roses at a local greenhouse, Maria accepts a ride into Bogotá from a boy she knew at work, and he introduces her to a regular Joe who makes a good living training mules. In Colombia, though, a mule isn't only a bucky animal with floppy ears: It's a person who swallows capsules that contain drugs, and who delivers them to New York in exchange for a payoff that promises a more comfortable life when (and if) she returns home alive.
In Maria Full of Grace, neophyte writer/director Joshua Marston, who is American, tells Maria's story with a lean intelligence marred only by his choice to focus on a best-case scenario. His meticulous movie, at times rife with suspense, is part docudrama, part ethnography, and part intimate portrait that transforms a sensational headline into something eloquently frightening and real.
"What about the people in the news?" Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) asks during her training, as if asking on our behalf. Her handler tells her not to worry about that. But she'd better: She'll have to swallow 60 capsules, which Marston coolly shows us being prepared in a pharmacy's backroom. There are no fat oily drug kingpins here, just everyday people doing their everyday jobs, and smuggling drugs on the side because they can. And Maria's pregnancy re-enforces the idea that her means of escape invites both hope and tragedy even for the next generation.
Maria Full of Grace is so compelling in part because of its disquieting subject matter and in part because Marston eschews melodrama in favor of a strong character study. At home with her family, Maria's grandmother offers her a piece of bread, but she rejects it in favor of a slice of meat. When her boyfriend suggests going to her house to spoon in private, she climbs high upon a rooftop, closer to the sky, and he scurries off.
So it's no surprise that Maria takes the risks she does -- and takes them with such daring -- to win a bit of freedom. And if the last movement of Marston's film strays too far from the challenge of what comes before, I'm comfortable with appreciating the best of it, as long as it doesn't lull us into thinking that all the other Marias of the world will end up like this one. In Spanish, with subtitles.