Maria Full Of Grace written and directed by Joshua Marston, produced by Paul Mezey with Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez, John Alex Toro and Patricia Rae. 101 minutes. Opens Friday (July 30). For review, venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Berlin - Now that Fahrenheit 9/11 has topped $100 million, the current documentary wave is starting to lap up against fiction films, too. Joshua Marston has just made one of the best dramas of the year, and he's done it with the skill of an investigative reporter. In quiet, detailed scenes, Maria Full Of Grace tells the story of a teenage village girl in Colombia who swallows 63 heroin pellets and gets on a plane to New York City.
Already graced with prizes at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, it's a powerhouse movie that never once resorts to melodrama. Marston, who directed his own screenplay, credits research. The stories of what happens to drug mules in America could make a film on their own, he says.
"Apparently, it's not uncommon to find bodies by the side of the road two miles from the New York airport cut open with their intestines pulled out," he explains one morning in Berlin, where Maria Full Of Grace won the best first film prize and actor Catalina Sandino Moreno won best actress.
"Once I started doing the research and spoke to people who had swallowed drugs, I heard an incredible number of fascinating stories. Truth far surpassed fiction. I would have ended up with a documentary about drug swallowing if I'd used all of them."
Instead, Marston chose factual details and wove them into a story that gathers symbolic force as it goes.
Maria (Moreno) works in a flower processing factory, de-thorning the roses North American lovers offer each other. Early in the film she becomes pregnant. Flying to America with both her womb and her stomach full, she takes on a mystical and political significance that earns the film's title.
"I started off wanting to make a film about the drug war," he admits, "and quickly realized I couldn't be that overtly political."
Marston locates the film's politics in simply "taking the viewpoint of a person whose voice would be marginalized.
"Normally, the presentation of a drug mule is of a person who is breaking the law, a criminal who is unfortunate and a victim but ultimately is someone who should be put in jail - a jail that very conveniently is paid for by an economic system that benefits from the construction of prisons and also benefits from selling helicopters that are then taken to Colombia to search for more people to put in jail."
He takes a breath.
"My politics is that I would rather see much more of that money spent on prevention. The whole metaphor of a war on drugs is an unfortunate one. But the only way I could begin to approach the global problem of drug trafficking was to work small, at the level of one individual's story, and make it political by giving voice to an experience that is not normally related in such detail on screen."
Not Colombian and not a native Spanish speaker, Marston depended first on solid research - he'd just barely avoided a PhD in political science - and then on his actors.
"I did years of research and preparation for the script, and then, in a sense, put it under the bed while we were working with the actors," he recalls. "They read half of it for 24 hours, and then we came to the rehearsal process fresh, doing improvisations, so that there was still a process of discovery."
Moreno, his star, has been sitting beside Marston for the whole interview, but it's only now that she speaks.
"For me it was very important to know how the roses were prepared," she says, "because I didn't know anything about this work. So I went to a little town. My mother's friend had a flower plantation, so he decided to help with the research.
"I went there and worked for a week and a half, to be able to talk to the people and work as they do. I didn't focus on the drugs part, because I didn't know how it's done and Maria doesn't know either. So for both of us it was a new experience."
Like Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things and Michael Winterbottom's In This World, Maria Full Of Grace follows the progress of globalization from the point of view of its victims. These are people who buy into the West's promise of mobility and then learn the price of the ticket.
"What's so compelling about these stories," Marston says, "is that each one is a testament to the level of desperation of the individuals involved."