No one who sees “Maria Full Of Grace,” premiering in Geneva at the Smith Opera House on Nov. 26, will ever read a story about drug smuggling without reliving a few moments of clammy fear. A literally gut-wrenching story, this remarkable first feature by New York director Joshua Marston is based on research into the U.S.-Colombian drug trade and the poverty that drives people to risk their lives transporting heroin inside their stomachs.
Marston was inspired to make “Maria Full Of Grace” after a woman in his Brooklyn neighborhood, home to many Colombian émigrés, told him her story of swallowing capsules of heroin and boarding a plane for the United States.
Outside a village in rural Colombia, Maria Alvarez works on a flower plantation, stripping the thorns off roses and packaging the flowers for the market. Tired of the oppressive conditions, her bullying boss and working to support her sister, mother, grandmother and nephew, Maria quits her job.
She is a fearless 17-year-old, scaling a wall to reach a rooftop, and taunting her boyfriend Juan to follow her. He's hardly her match, and when she finds she's pregnant, she treats his offer of marriage with contempt. Defiant, she dumps Juan, telling him she never loved him.
Casting off her job, her family and her boyfriend, Maria is heading for Bogotá looking for work as a maid, when she hitches a ride with Franklin, a guy she met at a party. Franklin has a certain urbanity and charm. He offers to make a connection for Maria, to get her a job where she can travel. She can be a mule. The money is too good to resist: up to $5,000 for one trip.
Preparations for the trip include learning how to swallow up to 100 thumb-sized pellets of heroin sealed in layers of latex. Maria gets some advice on how to do it, and how to comport herself, from Lucy, a self-possessed beauty who has made two previous trips.
On the day of departure, Maria is upset to find her friend Blanca has agreed to be a mule. Four women in all board the flight for New York. Martson contrives to put the viewer in the passenger seat.
There's a direct experience of the women's mounting discomfort and anxiety. One woman is held at customs. Lucy is ill and Maria has to endure questioning from two customs agents who are certain she is carrying drugs.
The fact that the man and woman examining her are perfectly reasonable makes the situation no less harrowing. Maria only makes it through because she's discovered to be pregnant. “We don't X-ray pregnant women,” the officer tells her. He knows what else she's carrying.
Two American gangsta types meet the women at the airport and take them to a New Jersey motel to claim their drugs. Maria's risk-taking will have consequences far beyond anything she imagined.
Catalina Sandino Moreno gives a riveting performance as Maria, imbuing her character with all the fire and grace that is demanded of her. Acting the parts of Lucy and Blanca, Guilied López and Yenny Paola Vega contribute to one of the most viscerally felt films of the year.
According to U.S. Customs, 145 people were intercepted carrying drugs internally through JFK International Airport last year. It is a sobering thought to realize that for each of them there is a story to tell as harrowing as Maria's.
The Smith Opera House screens “Maria Full Of Grace” at 7 p.m. Nov. 26 and 27, at 2 p.m. Nov. 28 and at 7 p.m. Nov. 29 and 30. It has a running time of one hour 41 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles, it is rated R for drug content and language.
Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens. All seats are $2 on Tuesdays. Call 315-781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to reserve tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.