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Friday, Oct. 21, 2005

A reality not to be sniffed at

Maria Full of Grace

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Joshua Marston
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Few films on the issue of drugs, let alone drug trafficking, manage to avoid a moralizing or sensational tone. But "Maria Full of Grace," the debut of former photographer and political-science-major-turned-filmmaker Joshua Marston, is a resolutely clear-headed look at the drug trade from the point of view of those at the bottom.

News photo
Catalina Sandino Moreno in "Maria Full of Grace" (c) 2004 HOME BOX OFFICE INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Maria, age 17 (and played by newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno), is stuck in a dead-end town in rural Colombia. The only paying jobs are at a cut-flower factory-farm.

With just a few shots, Marston establishes the situation -- vast corporate farms, engulfed in a miasma of sprayed chemical pesticides, and Maria working on a conveyor belt, Band-Aids on every finger from the nicks and cuts of the job.

Her boyfriend knocks her up, but they can't afford their own place; her bullying manager fires her over her morning sickness; and her mother and sister -- who depend on her income -- berate her for losing her job. Finally, Maria decides she's had enough and hits the road for Bogota. Her plan is to work as a maid, but after an introduction from a dodgy biker friend, she's offered a job as a drug mule. After training and some pointed reminders from her employers -- "If you disappear, we know where your mother lives" -- she swallows 30 condoms filled with cocaine and boards a plane for New York City, along with two other mules. Thus begins a harrowing journey that offers many bad endings, whether it's a burst condom and overdose, or X-rays and arrest at the hands of U.S. Customs. Or worse still, at the hands of the gang . . .

One of the great things about cinema is the way it enables us to share in other lives, other perspectives, and thus widen our understanding and (virtual) experience of the world. But while we've seen Scarface and Popeye Doyle and their ilk hundreds of times, "Maria" (titled "Soshite Hitotsubu no Hikari" in Japan) is a story unlike any we've seen before.

Speaking with The Japan Times, director Marston concurred: "The tale of the individual, the common, ordinary person, is considered by Hollywood to be not very dramatic or interesting."

News photo
Director Joshua Marston (left) and actress Catalina Sandino Moreno

Marston admits that the idea of a film about drug mules wasn't in the front of his mind, but that one day, in a restaurant in the Colombian section in Queens, "I got into a random conversation with a woman who was there, and I heard her tell me a story of how she previously traveled to the U.S. as a drug mule, and it was riveting. So I began to imagine a film that was telling the drug story from a different point of view, an ordinary individual who gets caught up in it."

It's easy to draw a parallel between the vast number of Hollywood films involving cops violently cracking down on drug dealers and cartels, and the policy of the U.S. government, which is skewed heavily toward police and military solutions to the social problems of drug abuse.

Marston agrees, and notes: "My political intention in telling this story is, in fact, to humanize the ramifications of drug policy of the United States -- and most other nations, now, falling in line -- with the hope that people will realize that the drug war, the way it's being conducted now, is a war of prohibition. And if there weren't prohibition, you wouldn't have a black market for drugs. I'm not saying we should legalize everything tomorrow. But you don't see people on the street corners trying to sell beer and wine secretly. I think we're not winning the 'drug war' and need to contemplate different strategies."

When asked of his approach toward shooting the film, Marston says, "I was most interested in sucking the audience into the story and making them forget they were watching a film. So, cinematically speaking, that meant a feel that was very documentary or cinema verite, to make the cinematic devices as transparent as possible."

Catalina Sandino Moreno makes her debut here, and it's a powerful one, as so much of the film's tension plays out on her face. Marston says that in casting the role, he was looking for "someone who felt very natural in the role."

Most major actresses in Colombia work in the more exaggerated emotional tones of the telenovellas, so he trawled the countryside doing casting calls, seeing "something like 800 girls" before finding Moreno, a college student who'd trained as an actress, but never acted professionally.

Marston admits that "part of me thinks that wouldn't it be a wonderful world if every film had a face you never knew before, and you could completely go into the story and see only the character, rather than the actor."

Moreno is a face you'll be seeing more of, however, as she's currently working on Richard Linklater's new film, "Fast Food Nation." A self-admitted "perfectionist" who's happier not watching the daily rushes during a shoot, Moreno did do a lot to get into her role. First, she spent two weeks working at a flower plantation: "I realized how hard it is as a job," says the actress. "And I could realize why [Maria] was so tired and unhappy and bored." But after breaking an agreement not to talk to the workers, she was forced to leave: "They were a little bit nervous, and thought I was a spy or something."

The next hardest step was physically swallowing the drug pellets -- condoms filled with powder -- for one scene.

"It was really hard," says Moreno. "I couldn't swallow a grape even. I thought I was going to choke or die. But I did eight of them. After the second one, it gets easier. But it was awful." She adds a big "yuck" for emphasis.

And, like her character, Moreno has been stopped by customs in New York. "It was awful. They opened my bag, and I had five people asking me these questions. They're very intimidating. It was like reliving the movie, and I was crying." Was she taken to the back room? "No, thank God, because I would die! Because now I know what would happen if they did take me to the back room."

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