Journey from Hell

My mother told me about drug mules when I was 6. It was her ingenious way of keeping me from running amok in Bangkok's Don Muang airport. “Someone will kidnap you!” she hissed, clamping her monstrous little bird claw on my wrist. “And make you swallow the drug! And then” -- the claw gripped tighter -- “you have to poo everything out for them.” I goggled at her, and then stapled myself to her side until we got to the States.

I filed that story away for nightmare use, as I did her wisdom on the unthinkable horrors of tampons and the perils of swallowing roasted watermelon seeds whole. Later on, I half-dismissed the tale as a product of the unknowable darkness of the maternal mind -- part gory detritus from my mother's ER-doctor life and part dreck from the Thai magazines she pored over on the weekends.

As a result, the true awfulness of the story dawned on me only recently, after I witnessed the ordeal of the young protagonist in the feature film Maria Full of Grace. That realization is a testament to the film's power: The movie takes the absurdist horror of what seems to be an urban legend (or some half-truth spiked with motherly wiles) and makes it shudderingly real.

And real it is. Agents at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport first began noticing the practice of concealing drugs internally in the early 1980s. Mules as old as 82 and as young as 5 have been caught; many have died when the pellets containing the narcotics have accidentally ruptured inside their bodies.

Maria Full of Grace is a small story, beautifully told, and one that homes in on the collateral damage, the human cost of Colombia's war on drugs. The film makes its geopolitical points with relative understatement, however, rooted as it is within the lives of deeply drawn characters. First and foremost, Maria is a film about people, not polemics.

The finest such character is that of Maria herself, embodied with utter conviction by Catalina Sandino Moreno. The actor has a trenchant sweetness about her face -- the large, liquid eyes are matched by the set of a small, firm chin -- and she employs that engaging openness and defiance in equal measure to depict the inner turmoil of 17-year-old Maria.

When we first meet Maria, she is working at a rose plantation in a small Colombian village, stripping the blooms of thorns. Her occupation gives us a sense of first-time director Joshua Marston's taste for poignant symbolism, one that escapes sentimentality thanks to the restraint of his actors, his own sense of taut direction, and intimate, close-up-heavy camera work.

Marston sketches out Maria's predicament in a few deft strokes. Laboring under the yoke of family demands, the sporadic attentions of her self-satisfied boyfriend, and the intolerable indignities of her job, Maria seeks escape by falling in with a drug boss, who presides over the film's agonizing narcotic communion scenes with an unnerving delicacy. “Do you want more anesthetic?” he asks, dipping a plastic-wrapped pellet of drugs into a bowl of oil and tenderly tapping off the excess.

These scenes are built on an inexorable, coiling dread; Marston mercilessly shepherds his film to this point. In its first half, Maria may rely too much on a few well-handled conventions (nausea = pregnant, sweaty headache = uh, oh) to telegraph its plot. Marston's creaky story machinations are more than matched, however, by his puzzling, intriguing characters, like that of the fatherly drug runner, and the sometimes confoundingly impulsive but deeply decent Maria.

By the time Maria winds up in Queens, New York, the movie belongs wholeheartedly to its players, including Orlando Tobon, a nonactor who plays a version of himself. Known as the “mayor of Little Colombia” in Jackson Heights and by a more tragic moniker (“the undertaker for the mules”), Tobon has tracked down the families of smugglers who have perished on their terrifying journeys and arranged for their burials -- some 400 times.

Tobon imbues his role with an effortless warmth and authenticity, and performances like his and Moreno's reveal Maria to be less about the violent intersection of drug runners' greed and drug mules' desperation than about real people struggling to express their inherent dignity in the face of some very bad odds.

Unlike the scenario that my mother depicted for me in the Bangkok airport, Maria isn't kidnapped and forced to smuggle drugs. She chooses to become a mule, and in the second half of the movie, Moreno is really let loose to demonstrate the internal yearnings and external pressures that compelled Maria to make such a decision. Moreno illuminates Maria's choice, and her character, with her unwavering dedication, as does Marston, who has the discipline to focus on one story and let the real dimensions of Maria's experience flesh out his universalist grace notes about poverty and the nature of human goodness. And in so doing, both he and Moreno keep Maria from becoming either a mawkish Madonna or a martyr to white, liberal guilt. She may fumble, fall, and find herself in an airport -- in front of a sign reading “It's what's inside that counts” -- while about to embark upon another perilous journey. But in the end, she belongs to herself. That grace, Maria makes us realize, is born of sheer grit.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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