"Maria Full of Grace" is a film that refuses to let itself get tangled. It allows itself very few extraneous tools; music
is minimal, the camerawork is modest, and the dialogue itself is stripped down to the barest essentials. Notice also how there
isn't a single scene that doesn't involve the title character. The approach works, and how: the film doesn't fall
into the canon of those socially relevant yet poorly made works that emerge from time to time (a good example is Vincente
Amorim's "The Middle of the World"; these films are usually worth seeing anyway.) Instead, "Maria" is a singular work that
generates real suspense, anger, and compassion.
Maria (Catalina Sandăno Moreno) is a seventeen-year-old girl working at a flower plantation; having the excruciatingly
boring job of de-thorning roses. She lives with her sister, mother, and newborn nephew, and thanks to the little one, money
is wanting. Maria is (thankfully) a girl who has the courage of her convictions, but unfortunately one of her (reasonable)
decisions puts the family in a tight spot; she quits her job at the flower plantation due to the management's poor treatment
of her. On top of this, Maria has just learnt that she is pregnant. Franklin (John Álex Toro), a man she meets, thinks he
may have a well-paying job for her: being a drug mule, swallowing heavy pellets of heroin and smuggling them over to the United
States. Not having anything to fall back on, she accepts.
My praise of the film's toned-down approach (although it's hardly bare-bones) might seem a little loaded, but sometimes
it's hard to appreciate how easy it is to screw something like this up. "Maria" could easily have opted for
a series of misplaced fiery arguments, some sort of thriller-style setup, or any number of traps. Instead, it feels barely
canned at all. Writer/director Joshua Marson bases the entire film on the exploration of human moments: the swallowing of
the first heroin pellets, fear shared together between drug mules on a plane, the agonizing suspense of the airport. The film's
resiliency in not cheapening its subjects makes us feel the pressing weight of every second; the feeling of every tense muscle
in a character's body.
Of course, one cannot get by showcasing the film's strengths without highlighting Catalina Sandăno Moreno. There is no
question that she is the heart and rock of the film; carrying with clarity and poise. Basically, her performance stays true
with what I'm sure many critics have thought themselves very clever to say: she is, simply, graceful.
Are there any nitpicks to be had? Sure. The film could have used a little rounding along the edges; extra scenes at some
points could have given a fuller experience. The ending, too, is a little more manipulative than it needs to be. But those
are tiny complaints. There's not a lot to say against a film that takes you to that deeper level of appreciation; there's
something incredibly exciting and compelling about a film that's organic enough so that, for a while at least, you truly
don't know where it's going to go.