Sunday, August 07, 2005

# 22: On MARIA FULL OF GRACE 3/17/2005 Released last July, writer-director Joshua Marston’s first feature film, MARIA FULL OF GRACE, was Oscar-nominated & didn’t win. This Spanish-language film about Maria Alvarez, a regnant 17-year-old who impulsively quits her sweatshop job dethorning roses in a Bogota suburb & winds up working as a drug mule smuggling cocaine into the wilds of New Jersey, has also gotten lots of nominations & awards from the Berlin Film Festival, Sundance, the Indie Spirit Awards & others. I thought it was about the drug trade too when I first saw it late last year, but now it’s been out for a little while on DVD, while the hook might be the drug trade – that stereotype to which Colombia is so often reduced – I think it’s about a lot more than that. Marston wrote the first draft of his script, he says, in about 48 hours, & then spent five years making this film, which of course introduces the luminous Catalina Sandino Moreno in the lead as Maria Alvarez. The poster featuring Maria gazing at a pellet of cocaine as though it were a communion wafer is certainly compelling, a visual image that summons up our capacity for obsession, faith, addiction & how all of them can morph together. Marston was initially hooked by the dramatic potential of the practice of “shot-gunning,” whereby drug runners intentionally send a number of young women who have ingested pellets of cocaine on the same plane, realizing that if one gets caught the others may make it through. This plays out on Maria’s flight, where she’s joined by her hometown friend Blanca, who’s caught wind of this scheme, the sad & ill-fated Lucy, & another woman who outfit suggests she may have been set up to get caught. Incredibly tense & ultimately tragic though the flight & its motel aftermath are, there’s still a lot of movie left when Blanca & Maria set out for Lucy’s sister in Queens. In Queens they find the pregnant Carla & Don Fernando, a community activist & “fixer” who helps out the poor immigrant & largely shadow community with little jobs, places to stay, information, tidbits of whatever one needs. He also sends dead mules home to Colombia, & the man who plays Don Fernando – a real community fixer whom Marston found during his research – reports he has sent home some 400 bodies over the years, just to give you an idea of the scope. But if you look at the film’s structure, Don Fernando on one shore is mirrored by the drug lord Javier back in Bogota, who also helps young people find work & get ahead. They are part of a film constructed around the idea of showing that globalization may have backfired in a way we could applaud. Marston is no fan of globalization, but he’s discovered that part f what has happened is a mutual penetration of cultures that allows, first, Maria & Blanca & Lucy’s sister Carla & women like them to move more easily into this one, & second, ultimately allows us to identify with them. This is done in three ways. First, by structuring the film so that Bogota & New York/New Jersey/Queens mirror one another – in what people wear, in rides into the cities where Maria watches green overhead route signs & exit signs, in cityscapes that are really very similar, & in stresses of motherhood both here & back in Bogota. Secondly & curiously, he achieves identification by making this a Spanish-language film. It could have been otherwise, but there’s just enough English in it to create an odd sense of the bilingual & of the feeling off kilter with what others are saying – much as Maria might feel herself. Finally, we find ourselves rooting for Maria as she progressively stands up for herself in moments that are leaps of faith that the truth will bear her over the abyss. She is a woman who wakes up – from a dead-end boyfriend who doesn’t love her - & who stands up, again & again. In the end, she’s on her own two feet, heading back to America from the airport. And, just as last year’s MYSTIC RIVER was really much more about the relationships of its four women than you might have noticed the first time through, MARIA FULL OF GRACE presents an ensemble of women who leave home to make another home, & whose obligations as mothers strain their reach toward sisterhood & fray their bonds. If you haven’t seen this film, it’s well worth your time. (755)