CFS presents “Maria Full of Grace”

Angela S. Allan

While the title may be decievingin regard to the film’s harrowing topic, “Maria Full of Grace” lives up to its laurels. Written and directed by newcomer Joshua Marston, the film explores the gritty world of drug trafficking and its so-called “mules,” or drug couriers.

Seventeen-year-old Maria Alvarez works in Colombia, stripping thorns from roses. Her meager income supports her entire family, but after an encounter with her boss, Maria quits the job, only to soon discover she is pregnant. Anxious to find a better life, and unwilling to marry her boyfriend, the baby’s father, Maria accepts a job smuggling drugs; however, they must be concealed within her stomach.

After swallowing over 60 capsules of cocaine wrapped in latex and sealed with dental floss, Maria must transport them to the United States. Shot in a documentary style, Marston shows viewers the taxing demands on mules as well as possible consequences. In order to first swallow the drugs, mules must suppress their gag reflex, which they practice using large grapes. More disturbing are the dangers associated with the job: a pellet prematurely expelled could result in detainment by customs officials, leading to arrest and imprisonment. Even worse, if a single pellet bursts inside a mule’s stomach, death is inevitable.

Unlike other drug trafficking films such as 2000’s “Traffic” or 2001’s “Blow,” “Maria Full of Grace,” released in 2004, portrays a less glamorized portrait of the war on drugs. Maria is a mere teenager, and debuting actress Catalina Sandino Moreno (who was nominated for a best actress Oscar) plays her with simple charm. The film, shot in both Spanish and English, presents an ethical question of pursuing the “American dream” at any cost, without offering any direct moralizing.

Maria’s experience, however, is hardly unique. The film’s tagline, “Based on 1,000 true stories,” suggests the unfortunate reality of the situation. Marston, a bilingual American, was inspired by both a real-life story he read in a newspaper and recollections from a woman in his neighborhood who had worked as a mule. In preparation, Marston interviewed mules, customs agents, and Columbian émigrés for the film. One of the men instrumental in the film’s creation was Orlando Tobon, who used to provide aid to mules and their families. He also appears in the film as a version of his former self.

The fifth film in the Cultural Film Series “On the Road,” “Maria Full of Grace” will be shown at the Connelly Center Cinema on Oct. 21, at 7 p.m., Oct. 22 at 3:30 and 7 p.m. and Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. Admission is $3.50 for students with ID and $5 for other viewers. The Monday showing only will feature Villanova assistant professor of law Beth Lyon as a guest speaker to introduce the film and to lead discussion afterwards. 

For more information, please call x9-4750 on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. or consult the CFS web page, www.culturalfilms.villanova.edu.