Maria Full of Grace, 101 mins, rated M 15+, opening in cinemas on 24 March 2005.

(This review originally appeared in the NSW Law Society Journal).

Despite its title, Maria Full of Grace is not a religious story. It is the story of drug couriers or, more crudely, “mules”. The Maria of the title (beautifully played by newcomer – and Academy Award nominee – Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a young Columbian girl who lives in a country town outside Bogotá. She has a boring job in a flower plantation, stripping roses of their thorns. She’s tired of being pushed around by her boss, sick of being the main bread-winner for her family, and bored by her boyfriend. So when a dashing young stranger suggests smuggling drugs as quick way of earning money and – more importantly – escaping her dull and predictable life, Maria succumbs.

The ‘tagline’ for the movie describes starkly the what happens next:

These pellets contain heroine. Each weighs 10 grams. Each is 4.2 cm long and 1.4 cm wide. And they're on their way to New York in the stomach of a 17-year-old girl.

Much as Martin Scorsese did for the business of gambling in the early scenes of Casino (1995), director Joshua Marston shows the process of drug-running in fascinating and sometimes excruciating detail. We learn how the girls (and they are all girls) train themselves to swallow the pellets, and how they keep them inside until the trip is complete. This is not for the faint-hearted, but it is authentic, and it certainly doesn’t glamorise the drug scene in any way.

This is an American film, but made by a small independent production company. It claims to be based on 1,000 true stories. First-time director Marston, who also wrote the screenplay, lives in Brooklyn, which is home to many Columbian émigrés. The character of Don Fernando, who helps Maria and her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), is based on a real person, Orlando Tobon. He plays himself in the film. The other characters are composites, but the authenticity of the story and the validity of the extensive research Marston did shines through. These people are real, which makes what they go through all the more poignant.

And it’s not a neat story. It’s messy. People make stupid, spur-of-the moment decisions. They make mistakes. They get confused. They let each other down and they hurt each other. All this lends authority to the film.

Maria’s quick fix solution to her life of drudgery is contrasted with the life of Carla and her husband, who have come to New York City from Columbia to make a new life for themselves by dint of hard work. Maria comes to see that such a life is possible. But is it for her? Can she escape the consequences of the path she so rashly chose?

While this is not a religious story, religious imagery is there in abundance. For example, the film’s poster shows Maria taking a drug pellet as if it were the Host at Communion. There’s also her name, the fact that she’s pregnant, with no place to stay, no home to give her baby, and that she goes to visit a friend’s relative who is also pregnant. Maria is, in the end, “Full of Grace”. But because of the hard edge of the story, none of this (apart, perhaps, from the poster) seems overdone.

Marston uses his camera fluidly, sometimes handheld to add to the sense of confusion and panic, at other times allowing it simply to rest on Maria’s beautiful face, letting us imagine her thoughts. Combine all this with performances of great naturalism, and a wonderful musical score, and it makes for a fascinating, and at times terrifying, journey into a demi-monde that few of us – by the grace of God – will ever visit.