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HBO presents
Maria Full of Grace (2004)

"If you're looking for work, I might be able to hook you up. It involves traveling."
- Franklin (Jhon Alexander Toro)

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: December 06, 2004

Stars: Catalina Sandino Moreno
Other Stars: Yenny Paola, Vega Sanchez, Jhon Alexander Toro, Guilied López, Patricia Rae
Director: Joshua Marston

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: R for drug content and language
Run Time: 01h:40m:07s
Release Date: December 07, 2004
UPC: 026359192722
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-A- B-

DVD Review

Every once in a while, it's nice to be reminded just how good movies can be, to remember that a story, well told, can have a lasting impact that stretches far beyond the hundred minutes or so spent in a darkened theater. I saw a lot of movies this summer, and, for the most part, those that weren't instantly forgettable (Troy, The Day After Tomorrow) were best instantly forgotten (Van Helsing, The Chronicles of Riddick). The most rewarding films were all, of course, independent releases, and the best of the lot, probably the best film I'll see all year, is Maria Full of Grace.

Written and directed by NYU film school graduate and unheralded newcomer Joshua Marston, the Spanish-language Maria is a taut, tension-filled hybrid drama/thriller/emotional rollercoaster about a firebrand teenager from Colombia, the title character Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno, discovered at an open casting call in Colombia), who makes the mistake of trying to find a better life for herself in an economy designed to marginalize a million girls just like her. She has what everyone around her considers a decent job, stripping the thorns off of long-stemmed roses for shipment to America, but she has no patience for just merely surviving, nor for a life with the listless boy who gets her pregnant. She finds out she could make good money, enough to really live on, as a drug mule, carrying cocaine to America in 80 tiny pellets, carried in her stomach.

Maria learns the specifics of the trade from Lucy (Guilied López), an experienced mule who has made two trips and enough money to buy her own house. "How did it go?" Maria asks. "I'm still here," she replies. But there's danger—worse than being stopped at customs, if one of the pellets the girls carry should break, they'll surely die of a drug overdose. Maria makes her trip, though, and it's hard to blame her, when you balance the risk versus what she has to gain. Who is she to care about the drug users in America, who might be hurt by her actions. In a life without choices, Maria makes her own.

The script unfolds naturally, and we never feel we're watching a tired, familiar plot play itself out. The characters, aided by vérité camerawork, speak, look, and behave like real people, particularly Moreno, who won a deserved best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival and has a shot at an Oscar. Sequences of Maria preparing for her trip—she trains herself to swallow grapes whole without choking so she'll be able to get down dozens of pellets of drugs—resonate, because we've connected to the character so quickly, we want her to succeed, to be happy. Things start to look bad on the plane, though. One of Maria's friends, Blanca (Yenny Paola), is making the run as well, as is Lucy (the drug runners, figuring at least one girl will be caught, send a few on the same flight), and in an agonizingly intense sequence that consists merely of furtive glances between the guilty parties, we become aware that things have likely gone horribly wrong for Lucy. Things get worse (Maria is snatched by the customs agents, who are no fools, but she can't be X-rayed because of her pregnancy), and worse still (the two sullen teens who sit with the mules while waiting for the drugs to emerge are more concerned about the product than the packaging), and Maria is forced to make a drastic decision.

There's not an ounce of fat on Marston's screenplay, not a minute of moralizing about drug users, no tired car chases or gunshots—despite a total lack of the superfluous violence that populates star-studded Hollywood movies about the same subject, Maria is among the most suspenseful, harrowing films I've seen. Despite the fact that the drug traffickers make vague threats against Maria's family should she disappear with the drugs, we get the idea that it's little more than effective posturing. Maria isn't a victim of a malicious drug cartel, but of the economic realities of the so-called War on Drugs, which targets not the real machine (trade agreements with drug-producing countries that make it very profitable for the U.S. to ensure no one ever really "wins" said war, for one), but the inconsequential cogs that make it run.

Maria Full of Grace is a powerful, gripping experience, one of those films you should see, not because it's the kind of movie that you feel should because its about an Important Issue (i.e. cinematic cough syrup), but because it's a reminder than movies can do more, can tell stories that really matter.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: I saw Maria late in its theatrical run at a major arthouse theater in Chicago, and the print left much to be desired. The DVD is a vast improvement. The low budget shows a bit, perhaps, but the visible grain feels entirely appropriate, as much a narrative necessity as a sign of budgetary constraints. Colors appear natural throughout, and blacks are strong despite the aforementioned grain. The print is clear and free of scratches, and the optional subtitles, white outlined in black, are much easier to read than they were in the theater.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Maria Full of Grace strives for realism, so don't expect a lot of action on the track. Most everything comes from the center channel, with music and ambient sounds mixed to the mains. There is some surround action, particularly during crowd scenes and a tension-filled plane ride, but overall, this is a straightforward mix, perfectly suited to the film.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Real Women Have Curves, American Splendor, Elephant
1 Feature/Episode commentary by writer/director Joshua Marston
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: Aside from two trailers (the U.S. theatrical and a fuzzy international version), the DVD includes only one extra of note, a commentary track with writer/director Joshua Marston. It's easily one of the best I've heard in ages, perhaps because he actually seems invested in the film. He talks about the production from conception to casting, filming on location and with an untrained cast, and striving for realism without making a film that was too preachy or overtly political.

When you pop in the disc, you're met with trailers for recent HBO releases Real Women Have Curves, American Splendor, and Elephant.

The grade might seem a bit high for just a commentary, but it's a strong enough inclusion to merit the grade inflation, I think.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Maria Full of Grace is unquestionably one of the best films of the year; it's also among the best foreign language films I've ever seen. Gringo writer/director Joshua Marston's intelligent screenplay would be laudable for it's general avoidance of banal plotting and Hollywood cliché, even if the film itself weren't such an engrossing, harrowing experience. Count it (and the spare, but worthy, DVD) as yet another success for HBO, a studio that's quickly becoming as formidable at making good movies as it is at dominating the Emmy awards.


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