There is an arresting and wholly original visual metaphor early on in Maria Full of Grace that speaks to the quiet power and underlying horror of this film. In this harrowing yet poetic story, a trapped and desperate teenage girl living in the poor yet beautiful Colombian countryside seals her fate at a rose plantation by vomiting on a bouquet of the blood-red blooms when her boss refuses to let her go to the bathroom. The 17-year-old Maria is sick of the dead-end job and sick of supporting her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby. She’s sick of her immature boyfriend and the loveless union that has resulted in her being pregnant. The world is on her shoulders, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out. Well, there’s one way out. Unfortunately, it involves her boarding a plane for New York City with more than 20 bags of heroin in her stomach.
Maria’s decision to undertake such a dangerous mission is supported not only by her dead-end existence in Colombia, but also by the understandable and impetuous urges that beset those on the brink of adulthood. Maria wants to take care of all her woes with one grandiose and profitable act, and can hardly predict the drawn-out nightmare that will ensue. After blowing off her job and dismissing her boyfriend, she is seduced by the charming, motorcycle-riding Franklin (portrayed with unctuous hubris by John Alex Toro). He, in turn, introduces her to a local drug lord, who promises her thousands of dollars for the use of her intestinal tract to move his drugs — and a swift and terrible vengeance upon her family if she fails to deliver every single heroin “bullet” to its destination. He’s a businessman, and explains to her in no uncertain terms that he will do anything and everything to protect his investment.
We are soon introduced to Lucy (Guilied Lopez), the sad and beautiful veteran of these transcontinental journeys. She becomes Maria’s unofficial tutor, providing her with a bowl of large grapes so she may practice the procedure that will lead to her carrying a lethal cache in her impregnated torso. At this point in the film, you will begin to feel the awful, nagging tension that must befall these couriers. Your palms will begin to sweat as you imagine what it must feel like to carry these latex capsules in your body, when any imperfection in their skins could mean a horrible death. When Maria steps on the plane with her childhood friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), you will experience one of the most wrenching and uncomfortable flights of your life, especially when Maria begins to detect a bit of lower intestinal tract discomfort. Every frame of film in the airplane scenes is drenched with an almost unbearable suspense. Does her “adventure” end here, 30,000 feet in the air?
With the exception of a too tidy and somewhat cliché ending, Maria Full of Grace is a beautiful, scary, knowing film that restrains itself from plunging into the all-too-easy “after school special” brand of cautionary statement. The story sears with the truth of a modern-day folk tale. It’s an unforgettable experience.
In Spanish with English subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple, Bloomfield Hills. Call 248-263-2111.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.