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May 13, 2006 |

By Miscellaneous | Film | May 13, 2006 |

Despite whatever other social and biological differences divide the sexes, it may well be that the primary distinction between men and women is that men are taught to follow their own prerogatives while women are too frequently forced by circumstance to build their lives on compromise and sacrifice. In a poor country that offers little opportunity for its young people to improve their lot, this situation is exacerbated: a man who has nothing to lose is free to do anything, damn the consequences, and women are forced to pick up the pieces.

This is one of the themes of Maria Full of Grace, in whose opening scenes we see young men who have embraced a nihilistic hedonism, celebrating the youth and lack of responsibility that are their only possessions worth having. Maria is pulled in three directions, torn by a wish that she could embrace this hedonism and enjoy it as her friends do; by her obligations to her mother, older sister, and infant nephew; and finally by her desire to know something of the world outside her Colombian village, to do more with her life than submit to the drudgery of her responsibilities.

The film’s star, Catalina Sandino Moreno, has heavy-lidded eyes and a lovely, open face that belie Maria’s steely resolve. She is only 17, with little education and no prospects, but she knows that there must be a better life for her somewhere, and she is determined to find it. When an acquaintance casually suggests that he could introduce her to his boss, a crime lord in Bogotá who uses young girls as drug mules smuggling heroin into the United States, she hesitates, but just for a moment. She knows the dangers, but the chance to achieve economic freedom is too seductive. She’s less afraid of death or imprisonment than she is of winding up like her mother and sister.

The film’s first act takes the viewer so deeply into Maria’s world that when she winds up in the U.S., it’s jarring. New York seems as alien to us as it does to Maria, and when the customs officers question her at the airport, we are relieved when they realize she does not speak English. After half an hour of Spanish, our own language seems as ugly and harsh to us as it must to Maria. In America she finds both the beauty and prosperity she’d been promised and the violence and danger inherent in the drug trade. A friend dies, or is killed, and Maria must decide what she will do. There is no safe place for her and no easy way out of this situation.

Though her world feels real and complete, Maria’s thoughts remain something of a mystery. They are never explicitly spelled out, and Moreno gives Maria a reserve that can make her face hard to read. It works, though, because it’s clear that Maria’s mind is mysterious to her as well; when she makes a decision, she often seems as surprised as we are.

Writer/director Joshua Marston has crafted the film with an admirable subtlety, encouraging the audience to come to its own conclusions, and Moreno’s delicate, unmannered performance is all the more moving for its lack of manipulation. This is her first film role, and it’s as promising a debut as I can recall.

Marston researched his story thoroughly in both Colombia and New York, and the final product shows the value of his method. Every setting, character, and emotion in the film has the texture of life. The details, from the painful training of Maria’s throat to accept the heroin pellets to the air mattress where she sleeps when she finds brief sanctuary in New York, feel true.

Through it all, Maria is both emblematic of every innocent young woman drawn into the drug trade and fully herself, an idiosyncratic human being. Her struggles and her bravery are hers, but they speak to experiences and feelings that are universal. Maria Full of Grace is a deeply affecting film.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]


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