It's one thing when an old-fashioned, heart-on-its-sleeve social drama in the grand realist tradition wins Best First Film at Berlin, a festival with a long-standing appetite for politically engaged moviemaking. It's quite another when the same modest, deeply felt Spanish-language film—from a young American director nobody's ever heard of, about a young woman from an impoverished village in Colombia who journeys to Bogot to look for work and finds herself on the next flight to New York with several kilos of cocaine hidden inside her stomach—so wows the hipster crowd at the Sundance Film Festival that it walks away with an Audience Award. As played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, a young Colombian-born actress with the smooth, round face of a Madonna and a stubborn glint in her eye who blew writer/director Joshua Marston away after he had auditioned hundreds of young women for the part, Maria is a headstrong malcontent who chafes under the monotony of her underpaid job on a vast flower plantation. In another kind of social-issue movie, she'd be the spunky rebel who breaks free, then either returns in a burst of sunlit glory as a heroic activist and role model to her people or winds up dead in an alley. But this Maria is someone both simpler and more complicated, a combative pain in the ass who picks fights with her matriarchal family and the oafishly passive boyfriend who knocks her up and sheepishly offers to do the right thing by her.
She's no victim, but her choices are severely limited. "That's one of the saddest parts of the story," says Marston, a lanky, curly-headed, 35-year-old Los Angeles native who looks all of 18 and converses with the earnest charm of a young idealist, "the fact that she's so boxed-in. At the same time, in writing the script, I tried not to create a situation where she was utterly confined and had no other options. Because if you do that, you end up with a movie of the week about a girl so poor she has to swallow drugs. Maria chooses to swallow drugs. You have a sense that she could have gotten some other kind of job in Bogot that day. Her desperation is less economic than spiritual. I struggled with how to portray that and not be disrespectful to all the people I'd spoken to who had been mules, who felt that they had no other option."
More character study than polemic, Maria Full of Grace is an intensely physical, specific movie seen entirely from the perspective of its beleaguered heroine. Marston wants you to understand from the inside what it is like to spend your days pruning the leaves off roses, an ugly task in the service of a stranger's pleasure, with only a weekly dance and furtive sex for light relief. He wants you to feel what it is like to swallow several dozen plastic-wrapped pellets of cocaine or heroin when you know there's also a baby inside you; to watch, helpless, as a fellow mule grows pale and sick when the contents of a burst pellet flow into her bloodstream; to be quizzed by suspicious immigration officials; to be manhandled by two cruelly heedless drug-trade thugs, then to escape and find yourself adrift in Queens with only your best friend and the address of a total stranger for luggage.
The movie's dense detail was meticulously researched by Marston, who lives today in Brooklyn, in close proximity to a concentration of Colombian expatriates—one of whom, Orlando Tobn, plays a community rescuer in the movie, as he is in life. Marston toured Bogot and its outlying villages with his producer, Paul Mezey, although, due to the hazards of Colombia's ongoing civil war, the South American segments of Maria were shot in Ecuador, soon after Marston had completed a first draft of the script. That's where he found some of the non-actors who blend in so smoothly with the pros, including Yenny Paola Vega, a bouncy high school student who signed up to audition to get out of physics class and gives an astonishingly natural performance as Maria's terrified best friend and fellow mule Blanca.
For all its naturalism, there's no mistaking Maria Full of Grace for a documentary. The movie is thrillingly subjective, teeming with the fullness of everyday proletarian life that one finds in the work of the directors who most influenced Marston in the making of this movie: Hector Babenco and the Brazilian realists, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. It stands to reason that Marston's favorite Loach film would be 1994's Ladybird Ladybird, the story of a welfare mother and her travails with government bureaucracy. "I knew nothing about it when I first walked in," says Marston. "I was so blown away that I had to come back the next day and watch it again."
Like Leigh, Marston did a lot of advance improvisation, but under the tutelage of gifted cinematographer Jim Denault, he also kept his hand-held camera going if something interesting turned up in its path, a favorite Loach technique. Maria Full of Grace doesn't have the finesse of a movie by Loach or Leigh, but its newly hatched roughness works to the benefit of the material. While the movie's political commitments are far from subtle, Marston is less of a Marxist didact than either of his British heroes. "In many ways," he says, "the most political thing you could do is to put people in an experience they wouldn't otherwise choose to put themselves in." Like a good novelist or anthropologist, he's more interested in what shows up, unbidden, during the creative process. From producer Mezey and Denault, who recently worked together on Jim McKay's wonderful multicultural drama Our Song, Marston learned to keep his options open: "I had to force myself not to make decisions until a decision needed to be made. I understood from Paul that if we saw something interesting across the street, we'd turn the camera around and incorporate it and gain that much more of a sense of authenticity."
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Though he grew up near Hollywood and was interested in photography in high school, Marston had no initial ambitions to become a filmmaker. He describes his amazement when a fellow senior in high school announced his intention of going to USC to study filmmaking: "I thought, 'People go to college to study movies?' I was that naive." He embarked on a Ph.D. track in political science but grew to hate it. So he left with his master's degree, and by a circuitous route that included time spent living in Paris, Prague, Tokyo, Vietnam and Ecuador, he ended up in film school at NYU, where he made a couple of shorts. It was at NYU that Mezey and Marston first crossed paths ("He doesn't remember me," says Marston, "but I remember him"), though it wasn't until a mutual friend bumped into Mezey, whose father had grown up in Colombia, on a train from Philadelphia to New York and mentioned Marston's script that the project took off. Maria Full of Grace was made for $3 million, an enviable budget for a first feature.
"That's my eternal gratitude to HBO," says Marston, "that they were able to rise to the challenge of making a film, in Spanish, by a first-time director with an unknown cast, for twice the budget that we would have been able to raise on our own." Initially, HBO told Mezey and Marston their movie would never have a theatrical release, but the unexpected success last year of Patricia Cardoso's Real Women Have Curves, about a young LA Chicana trying to get into college, had changed all that by the time they started shooting. Whether the far grimmer Maria Full of Grace will achieve the same success with Latino or general audiences is an open question.
But when Marston, who was nervous that the Colombian-Americans would reject the movie out of hand because of its subject matter, screened the movie for community bigwigs in New York, they embraced it. "What people in the Colombian community are saying is that even though the movie is about the drug trade, it humanizes those who get caught up in it."
Maria Full of Grace was written and directed by Joshua Marston; produced by Paul Mezey; and Stars Catalina Sandino Moreno, Guilied Lopez, Yenny Peola Vega and Orlando Tobn. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.