Monday, June 21, 2010

Maria Full of Grace -- exploitation and determination

Director: Joshua Marston, 2004. (R)

Writer-director Joshua Marston brings a riveting story to the screen in his feature-length debut. Filmed in Ecuador and using unknown actors, Maria Full of Grace is a story of illegal drug smuggling that highlights both the exploitation of the poor and the determination needed to survive.

The title points to the grace that Maria carries into her situations. It also points to the "grace" of the cocaine that she carries in her full stomach, a false grace that does not satisfy.

Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a 17 year-old working in a flower factory in a small Colombian village. Living with her mother, grandmother, sister and small niece, her meager salary supports her family. All the men have deserted these women, and survival is the name of the game. But the factory work, stripping thorns from roses that will be shipped elsewhere, likely to wealthy Americans, is hard and tedious and the boss is a thorn in her flesh. When he pushes her too far, she has had enough -- she up and quits.

Troubles multiply, though. With no income, her family presses her to apologize and beg for her job back. Her boyfriend breaks up with her. Becoming isolated, she discovers a new "friend" Franklin who takes her to the big city of Bogota to look for work. En route, he suggests there might be an opportunity to earn some money while traveling. But this is not simply traveling; it is illegally importing cocaine into the States. She will be a drug mule.

As a mule, she will swallow capsules full of cocaine, each weighing 10 grams and measuring 1.5" by 0.5", about the size of a large grape. If swallowing one is hard, it gets much worse: she has to swallow 62. If one of these breaks in her stomach she will die. The danger of death is clear; the danger of arrest and imprisonment hovers over the girl. For several thousand dollars, a small fortune in her village, she will risk her future and her life.

Out of desperation, Maria clings to this forlorn hope of a future. But underlying this is the clear exploitation of the poor to satisfy the desires of the rich. Even in the factory, where the working conditions are demeaning, she and her fellow workers are being exploited. Perhaps not as bad as some of the sweat shops of SE Asia, it is still a less then perfect environment. Such social injustice demands a champion to fight for the cause. We have seen this in real life, with big corporations, like Nike, facing criticism and more for their employment tactics in third-world countries. Some, such as Starbucks, have moved to more expensive labor, using "green coffee strategies," to empower local labor forces and pay fair wages. This is the appropriate and biblical/ethical thing to do.

Worse, though, is the reality that drug lords can employ poverty-stricken women to carry drugs across borders, letting them taking all the risk while themselves enjoying all the profits. The return for Maria is small, but for the boss it is huge. This portrays illegal capitalism without redress.

When Maria arrives in New York, inwardly anxious but outwardly calm, further troubles befall her. Before long she sees the dark inner reality of drug smuggling -- violence and death. Taking off with little cash in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, Maria faces choices that will define her and direct her future.

Ultimately, this is the tale of a headstrong girl growing up, a nuanced coming of age story of sorts. Maria draws upon all her determination. Desperate circumstances cause us to face our own characters. If we are weak internally, outward troubles may break us, and this is clear for some of the characters in Maria. If we have inner strength, these troubles will sharpen us and allow our strength to shine through. It is like the refining fires that burn the dross away from impure metals, leaving the pure behind (1 Cor. 3:13).

Moreno gives a powerful performance as Maria. Surprisingly, this is her debut film. Yet she was nominated for an Oscar for her role. She is in stellar company, as only two other Hispanic women have been nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award: Salma Hayek for Frida (2002) and Penelope Cruz for Volver (2006). She carries the film, with a realistic account of a lost teenager finding her way.

Other films have focused on the effects of drugs on the user. For example, Danny Boyle's Trainspotting portrayed the horrors of addiction in graphic form. But Maria avoids focusing on the junkie and instead shows the effects on the mule carrier. Either way, it is clear that drugs offer no hope to any in the illegal "food-chain." The risks far outweigh the gains. True hope is found in true grace, the grace of Jesus (Eph. 2:8).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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