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HBO Films/Fine Line Features

Official Site

Director: Joshua Marston

Producers: Paul Mezey, Jaime Osorio Gómez

Written by: Joshua Marston

Cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae, Orlando Tobón, Jhon Álex Toro


The title, with its heavy-handed Catholic overtones, implies that Maria Full Of Grace takes itself very seriously, and would the viewer please do the same. The problem here is that Maria may be full of grace, but she’s fuller still of heroin, having swallowed 60 pellets’ worth for transport into the U.S. (One of the posters takes the Catholic heroin/communion link even further, showing Maria swallowing one of the proffered pellets as if it were a communion wafer.) In a riveting series of sequences, she sells her body to a Bogotá drug-lord, learns how to swallow large grapes whole in preparation for consuming the pellets, and ingests all 60 in a grueling afternoon.

That’s the sum total of anything new and interesting to be seen in Maria, an otherwise by-the-numbers combination of No-One-Understands-Me teen angst and intercultural-conflict saga. Maria (Moreno) is first seen gazing off into the distance while working her shit job, removing the thorns from roses. As far as third-world economic staples go, it’s hardly sweatshop labor, but Maria still balks. Next she’s making out with her boyfriend, or rather, he lunges at her while she looks meaningfully up at the sky. She’s too good for this place, you see, but instead of applauding her rightful resentment of economic inequity and inchoate determination to do better, her relatives and friends treat her like your average rebellious movie teen. “That’s the trouble with you,” someone actually bothers to say, “You’re so stubborn.”

Maria and her friend Blanca (Vega) go to a dance, where Maria gets her to dance with the boy she has a crush on. While the couple dance, Maria meets the guy’s friend, Franklin (Toro), who carries himself with all the signs of a 1950s juvenile delinquent—black leather jacket, suspiciously bad-ass (and non-Hispanic, and therefore also suspicious) name, motorcycle. Naturally, talking to Franklin only leads to trouble, as he pimps her out for a heroin-mule operation, and we’re off to the races. Once in America, Maria and the charmless, mulish (no other word will do) Blanca find themselves in a deal gone terribly wrong, leading to a few forced lessons in American-style integration and helpfulness, as they learn that, despite the fact that Queens is full of scary rap music, it also has colorful ethnic enclaves full of people Just Like Them, who also struggle for a life of better opportunity, etc. One wonders why this would make a difference to Maria, who would still be working a shit job for relatively little pay in slightly better circumstances, but whatever.

A few years back, Barbet Schroeder’s much-maligned Our Lady Of The Assassins took on Joshua Marston’s foreigner-in-Colombia perspective with much more interesting results. Of course, that might have had something to do with Schroeder’s choice to actually shoot in Colombia, setting up takes with a digital camera in between unforeseeable gunfights in Bogotá, the world’s violent crime capital. Maybe Marston thought it wouldn’t make a difference, or maybe he just couldn’t find an insurance company to bankroll shooting in Colombia, but his South American scenes were filmed in Ecuador, which leads to a disturbing, non-specific softness in the location work. They could’ve been shot on a California backlot for all the impact they have. Marston fares slightly better in Queens, which, judging by the title of his debut short film (Bus To Queens), is his home turf. There’s footage of shitty apartment complexes, neighborhood social workers and the like, generally unseen still, even after John Sayles brought a similar perspective to Harlem 20 years ago in The Brother From Another Planet.

Besides Marston’s comparative take on Colombia vs. NY, Maria has little to offer. The acting is fine, but the writing is bland and predictable. It’s the kind of movie where, when a girl pensively says “I have something to tell you,” it means she’s pregnant. Indeed, this kind of work is generally John Sayles’ turf, and it makes him look good by comparison: At least his environments are sharply defined. Maria is just vague and shapeless, aiming for rich ambiguity but settling for being soft-headed and predictable. That doesn’t stop it from being mildly self-righteous. Marston describes his film as a “test case” for non-commercial filmmaking. “Will people see a film with subtitles? A film that challenges them to think about an experience different from their own?” He concludes, “Prove that audiences want smart films that don’t pander to them. Films that make them feel and think!” Fine, but Marston’s film does neither. It earns points just for showing the economically dispossessed, something that doesn’t happen often enough without resorting to sheer miserabilism (something which, to his credit, Marston goes out of his way to avoid doing; the poor here are as content and middle-class as possible), but that’s about it.

—Vadim Rizov

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