Maria Full of Grace is a remarkable film for several reasons. It tells a harrowing story of a teenaged Columbian woman who finds herself at a crossroads in an unhappy romantic relationship. Her financially struggling and hard-working family, three generations under one roof, insists that Maria labor in a factory dethorning crates of roses, and her only chance to rise above a deepening hole of deterministic lack of opportunity seems to be the lucrative drug smuggling trade devised in the back rooms of Bogota. But the film displays an unusual intelligence in its treatment of this story–its embrace of ambiguity and mixed motives and constant aversion to melodrama evokes the kind of character study propelled by astonishingly effective performances that reveal an entire cultural rivulet streaming unannounced through America. It’s this year’s Dirty Pretty Things, a suspenseful, rock-solid narrative that never loses sight of the complex people and social realities at its center.
The film was a project many years in the works by its writer-director Joshua Marston, a graduate of NYU’s film program who also has a master’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago. And Maria is a political film in the best sense of the word, a film that humanizes and deepens our understanding of the kind of situation most viewers only read about in the papers. The film has won several major prizes at the Sundance, Berlin, and Seattle film festivals and has been deservedly garnering critical accolades across the board, especially for the film’s debut star, Catalina Sandino Mareno, who invests the character of Maria with dignity and depth by striking a balance between restraint and release.
Marston. who grew up in Los Angeles and has lived in Berkeley, Paris, and Prague, as well as Chicago and New York, came to the story intrigued by Maria’s transient life, one requiring careful observation and spontaneous decision-making, for better and for worse. He recently explained, “I move around because when I am in a new place my eyes are more widely open, my ears more sensitive. For me, filmmaking is about looking outward, listening to other peopleís stories and then finding a way to translate them onto the screen. Researching the film was a long process of hundreds and hundreds of conversations with all sorts of peopleófrom former ‘drug mules’ in prison to women working in flower plantations in Colombia, from Customs inspectors at Kennedy airport to Colombian immigrants in Queens.”
Marston’s research pays off and the film’s settings and performances are strikingly authentic. (In fine neorealist fashion, a New York Columbian immigration activist is played by Orlando TobÛn, a real-life model for his character.) Apparently, one of the biggest hurdles in getting the film produced was Marston’s insistence that the dialogue be spoken in Spanish and subtitled for English speakers, a decision that not only secures the story within its cultural context, but creates the opportunity for English-speakers to “listen to other people’s stories.” One of the pleasures of seeing the film here in Los Angeles was the fact that my screening was filled with predominantly Spanish-speaking, young, and middle class viewers–not your typical “art film” demographic at all, but a group of casual moviegoers who embraced the film both as a depiction of their world and as the compelling drama it is.
It’s a testament to the filmmakers’ creative maturity that Maria Full of Grace navigates its narrative without once capitulating to obvious emotional readings. Despite the title reference, Maria is not saintly, but a person seeking to find herself and make sense a difficult life; her decisions are not always the most ingenuous or well-reasoned. She clumsily discerns opportunities for self-preservation that often endangers her life or the lives of those around her, but does so from a deep desire to preserve her integrity and dignity in an unending evolution of character. Omitting highly-charged scenes (job losses, breakups, births and deaths), the film knows that Maria’s story–and the stories of hundreds of Columbians like her–is much deeper and complex than any newspaper or simple melodrama might imply.