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Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace: Thicker Photographs

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Drug smuggling has given rise to such urban legends as the hollowed-out dead baby (the “crack-o’-lantern”?) and though the idea of drug mules–people who swallow rubber-encased drugs before boarding international flights–sounds like another, apparently they do exist. (Click here for a Dutch news report on the phenomenon, including an X-ray; click here for a BBC interview with a Colombian drug mule now in prison in Britain.)

In Maria Full of Grace, the new movie by first-time writer-director Joshua Marston, this is how a mule brings drugs into New York from Colombia: the powdered drug is spooned into the cut-off tips of surgical gloves which are tied off and compressed to form pellets about the size of two red globe grapes (which she’s coached to swallow whole for practice). Having taken medication to slow her digestion, the mule then downs 50 or 60 of these pellets (the number depends on the size of the mule) and flies into the metropolitan area. On arrival, handlers take her along with two other mules to a motel in New Jersey and wait for them to excrete the pellets, which they have to wash themselves, wipe with toothpaste so as not to offend the handlers, and collect in a bag for counting and weighing. (In a technique called “shotgunning” (see this OffOffOff interview with Marston), multiple mules are sent on each flight, so that if one gets caught it will serve as a distraction and permit the others to get through.) As the Dutch report explains, a Colombian mule can earn between $5,000 and $8,000 per trip, coming from a country where the average annual per capita income is around $2,000.

It’s hard to imagine workers used more impersonally in their trade than drug mules, and Marston attempts to restore individuality to his title character whose function as a smuggler, after all, is to pass through the world unnoticed. As Marston says in the OffOffOff interview:

[W]hat I was interested in doing was not telling a story that we’ve seen already from the top down, from the point of view of the DEA agent or the drug trafficker [i.e., Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000)], but telling it from the bottom up, from the point of view of someone fairly low on the totem pole who is suffering through this experience. And in that way, I wanted to make it not so much “matter-of-fact” but everyday…. It was, “What is it like to do this,” rather than, “What’s the most dramatic, glitzy, hyped-up way that we could do it with the flash of ‘Miami Vice’.”

Marston conducted extensive research, both among recent Colombian immigrants in Queens and in Colombia, and centered the story around the seventeen-year-old Maria (Catalina Sandrino Moreno) who, at the beginning, works on a flower plantation outside Bogotá stripping thorns off roses in preparation for bundling and shipping. We see enough of her repetitive job and of her quarrelsome home life with her mother, older sister, and the sister’s baby, who all depend on her pay, to know that she’d be open to a big-money temptation. She also needs money because she’s pregnant and morning sickness causes her to lose her job. She is sensible enough not to marry her boyfriend Juan, whom she tends to challenge petulantly and who responds defensively. (Marriage would entail either moving in with her family, who dislike him, or making a round dozen at his family’s home, and in any case they’re not in love.) Maria comes across as a fundamentally level-headed girl whose rebellious streak combines with extremely narrow opportunities to lead her down a bad path.

Marston was asked by OffOffOff how he got involved in moviemaking:

Well, I was a photographer since being in high school, and loved taking photographs–particularly abroad, when I traveled–meeting people, using it as a way to sort of be a fly on the wall. But I often felt like the photographs were somehow too thin, that I would always want to tell a five-minute story about what was behind each image, and so I wanted something that was thicker, that was more narrative.

You wouldn’t mistake Maria Full of Grace for a documentary, but it does have an open-to-the-world, objective quality that the concept of “thicker photographs” describes perfectly.

In addition, the movie is entirely in Spanish with subtitles. Marston is not a native Spanish speaker and says in this interview with Dramatic/Romantic Movies that he encouraged the actors to reword his dialogue according to the Colombian Spanish specific to the region where the movie takes place. The movie feels researched without feeling lifeless, and one way and another Marston presents such a straightforward view of Maria’s situation and experiences that he seems to have used his control of the project to disappear into it.

From a structural point of view, he accomplishes this by means of total resistance to the genres of melodrama and heroic romance. The first villain in a Hollywood movie would be the foreman on the flower plantation, who makes Maria clean her vomit off the roses he’s planning to throw away. But Marston is not a hysteric, or an opportunistic manipulator, as you can see from this comment in the OffOffOff interview about what he wanted to convey about the plantations:

Two things. One is that from a managerial point of view, I was struck by the incredible strides that have been made in improving the quality of work and the care of the workers. And from the point of view of the workers, what struck me was how awful the work is and continues to be, and how poorly the workers continue to be treated. So both things [were] going on–that it is a lot better than it was 15 or 20 years ago, but it still remains not very nice work, and it still remains work that you do on your feet for long periods of time.

This distinguishes Maria Full of Grace not only from Hollywood movies and TV shows, but from well-intentioned left-wing crap like Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things (2002), in which the virginal Turkish-immigrant heroine not only has to work for starvation wages in the garment industry but is forced to blow her supervisor, as if the moviemakers didn’t trust us to sympathize with a piece laborer who wasn’t also a rape victim.

The more obvious villains would be the drug smugglers, both the patriarchal local kingpin in Colombia who interviews Maria for the job and the young thugs in New Jersey who watch TV and snap at the girls while waiting for them to shit out the pellets. There’s no question that these men threaten the girls: the kingpin, for instance, tells Maria that in case a measurable amount of the drugs goes missing he knows the names of her entire family, down to her baby nephew. And when something does go wrong in New Jersey–if one of the pellets ruptures inside a mule she’s exposed to a lethal dose–the handlers refuse to get a doctor and then make a bloody mess (scaring Maria, who takes off with the drugs).

Even then Marston doesn’t pump the situation up but works it out in a way that makes sense. The handlers are brutes and scum, but Marston has them act rationally within the restraints of an ongoing trade, i.e., with some thought of their reputation among the mules whom it’s more efficient not to have to replace. They behave nastily but without sadism of the melodramatic kind that makes you root for violent retribution when the gang is inevitably busted up. That is, Marston doesn’t treat us like action movie addicts; Maria isn’t cheated and the gang isn’t busted up. His beautifully stated intention was “to show one working world and then to show another working world–drugs and flowers,” and he lives up to it fully.

This lack of melodramatic shaping is connected to the lack of heroic romance, any sense of Maria as a knight cleaning up the dirty business. In other words, no “In a world where … , at a time when … , one woman dared to … ” bullshit. (You can see how they’d do it in a Hollywood remake: compress what happens in this entire movie into the first 30-40 minutes, cast Jennifer Lopez as Maria, and have her become an FBI-agent-with-a-mission who brings down the drug cartel and liberates all the mules.) Marston achieves a nightmarish quality on a socio-political topic entirely without distortion or hype. This may be unprecedented in American movies. (Maria Full of Grace makes a shaming contrast to Oliver Stone and Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978), the story of an American student jailed in Turkey for drug smuggling, with its eroticized violence.)

Maria Full of Grace is too absorbed in the details of a strange, underpublicized corner of human activity to be dull, but all the same there is a limitation to Marston’s otherwise admirable focus on Maria’s experiences. Although the character is perhaps more self-reliant than might be typical among girls in her situation (emphasized by the casting of Moreno, an urbanite college student who can’t help but exude a certain air of entitlement), the movie works that trait into a coherent fictional personality. It also gives you a sense that Maria’s defiance, which might be admirable in other contexts, is part of what gets her into the drug mule team, which is to push naturalism in the direction of tragedy (though her outcome isn’t tragic).

But, finally, Marston’s concentration on Maria’s perspective, while scrupulously done, falls short of the vision that would connect it to something larger. For instance, as the movie presents her situation, there’s no decent work for Maria outside the flower plantations, but we’re not told what the range of less desirable possibilities includes. Suggesting that Maria doesn’t have much choice is to say that her character doesn’t matter as much in determining her fate as it would for a more fortunate girl. But the movie nevertheless sticks to Maria so closely that we don’t get a scan of Colombian society, which we need if Maria’s social position is such that her character doesn’t have the full range of action, dramatically speaking.

This is a central paradox in the movie, but Marston doesn’t seem to realize it. Which is not to say I’m bemoaning the lack of a Marxist vision, i.e., melodrama that insists it’s a higher historical truth. (The lack of Marxist melodrama is especially surprising given Marston’s spell in academia as a political science grad student at the University of Chicago.) The model I’m thinking of would be, rather, the panoramic realism of Tolstoy and George Eliot, which acknowledges the countervailing influences of social forces and historical trends on the one hand and individual character on the other.

Perhaps it’s too much to demand godlike artistic omnipotence on his first go, but in his first book Theodore Dreiser shows how Sister Carrie both betters and loses herself according to her limited opportunities, which he depicts on a broad scale. (He can do it within the compass of two sentences: “When Carrie renewed her search, as she did the next day, going to the Casino, she found that in the opera chorus, as in other fields, employment is difficult to secure. Girls who can stand in a line and look pretty are as numerous as labourers who can swing a pick” (ch.38).) By temperament Marston might have more in common with the Abraham Cahan of The Rise of David Levinsky, which shows us with unvarnished naturalism a society on a broader scale than Maria Full of Grace. (The only plus side to the lack of vision in Maria is that, despite the title, Marston makes almost nothing of the sacramental symbolism of swallowing the pellets.)

Marston’s movie doesn’t get beyond the kind of journalism that opens with a “human interest” paragraph because he recreates Maria’s subjective experience so respectfully it’s as if he’d consider it a violation of the girl to move from an external vantage to an internal one. He’s too fastidious to use Maria for muckraking purposes (cf. Michael Moore’s exploitation of the bereaved war mother in Fahrenheit 9/11), which is fine, because the muckraker’s fervor often distorts his reportage, anyway, but Marston’s case-file-approach still lacks dimensions. He can’t be said to identify with Maria, to imagine what it would be like for him to be her.

Thus, though Maria’s character flaws contribute to her troubles, the movie implicitly excuses the flaws by reference to her opportunities (even when she resents paying for medicine for her nephew). This means that, unlike her friend and co-worker Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), whose babyish gluttony the movie treats with noticeably less sympathy, Maria isn’t truly corruptible. Marston doesn’t even debit Maria’s moral account with her collaboration in the drug trade. She’s a naturally stain-resistant soul, like little allegorical Oliver Twist among the pickpockets.

Americans are bound to feel a movie-specific loss: although Moreno, who has never acted before, can turn a gorgeous, grave valentine of a face to the camera, she can’t express drives that wouldn’t fit Marston’s scheme. Thus, she can’t give a complex, “You go, girl!” performance of the kind given by Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Baby Face (1933), Constance Bennett in Bed of Roses (1933), Ida Lupino in The Hard Way (1943), and Lonette McKee in Sparkle (1976) as working girls making their way in tough rackets. Maria is plausible anecdotal evidence, but not a fully imagined character.

Thus, you can respond to Maria’s story and still wish Marston were less sober. This may be clearest in the sequence on the airplane, when a nervous Maria goes to the bathroom and poots out two of the pellets. She’s not given to panic, so she washes the pellets off, coats them with toothpaste, and swallows them back down. Marston presents it as a tense situation, a close call, but if you think about it, if it were you, you might very well be rolling your eyes and even laughing in your sick fear, thinking, “Of course, this would happen to ME.” This mishap had the potential to be one of the most daring slapstick moments in movies (like a horrific version of the candy factory episode in I Love Lucy). Roman Polanski, a black humorist, clumsily made too little of the slapstick with the pickle jar at the end of The Pianist (2002). Marston, honest soul that he is, doesn’t even recognize the opportunity he wastes.

Still, Marston’s only real error comes when Maria is collared by the immigration drug screeners at the airport. Because she’s pregnant they aren’t allowed to X-ray her, but they see right through her anyway. So it’s not only unconvincing that they’d let her go, but some people in the educated, art-house audience, unsure how to react, cheered when she was released. They wouldn’t cheer, I suppose, if they saw the results of her getting 60-odd pellets of drugs onto the streets, but even if you stay within the story, I’d rather see Maria in prison for four years than working as a drug mule. The whole point of the movie is that being a drug mule is a horrible existence. Marston wants real-world complexity and yet his utterly straight-faced movie can’t coordinate the opposing feelings generated by this single episode.

Marston is so very serious he comes close to inspiring irreverence: when Maria gags in her first attempts to swallow the grapes, I wondered if that had any connection to why her boyfriend isn’t in love with her. It wouldn’t have hurt the movie at all if she herself or the girl training her had said something along these lines. It would have made it more roundedly human. Throughout I couldn’t help thinking of wonderful opportunities for low-brow parody (e.g., if there’s another Airplane movie). There’s tempting material even in actual news reports, for instance, this story about a dog used as a drug mule that Dutch authorities for safety reasons won’t permit to be sent to England for the trial of the people who implanted 11 canisters of drugs in his body. (Do the British want him to testify? Can’t they just depose him in the Netherlands?) I can scarcely think of a person I’ve ever met whose story, if faithfully replicated, wouldn’t elicit a more varied response than Maria Full of Grace does.

When asked why he let the actors have so much say in shaping their characters, Marston replied:

Because I’m not a Colombian and because I’m not a native Spanish-speaker. And because they, all the actors, have a whole set of knowledge and experience that is relevant to their characters that I could never have. It would be presumptuous of me to dictate and close off what the script was.

“Presumptuous” of the writer-director to have final say? He speaks as if there were no difference between the actors and the characters they play. (Hint: one of these groups is not made up of real people.) At a certain point this degree of tact becomes indistinguishable in its onscreen result from lack of imagination. Last year’s celebrity drug-burn story Wonderland had more aesthetic shape precisely because it was free to disrespect its central character, porn “legend” John Holmes.

Marston has made an amazingly lean debut feature. He has risen above the almost overwhelming temptations in American movies to shape his story for melodrama and heroic romance. He has gathered data so as to have an accurate sense of his story and then intelligently and steadily crafted the data so as to present the story as it would likely play out, and to convey what it would feel like to its protagonist. But everything he trimmed wasn’t fat.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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  • http://www.chrisknipp.com Chris Knipp

    Admirable review, the most thorough I’ve seen, and your supportive material and footnoting are most welcome (this is a topic we need background on before we can really evaluate the film properly). Thanks a lot for this. I too noted the lack of humor; the lack of quirky detail — features of a certain over-earnestness. I think the film is being rather overrated at present, but I’m nonetheless glad Marston was able to make it and did such a good job and got such a great start on what could well be a fine career as a director.

    Did you note — did anybody say — why they shot in Ecuador rather than Columbia for most or all of the Colombian sequences? I thought Marston said somewhere but can’t find it.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Thanks for the comment. Always welcome to hear someone out there is responding to my work.

    As for shooting in Ecuador: “‘The original intention of the project was that we would go to Colombia – just me, Paul, and the d.p., Jim Denault – and [work with] an entirely Colombian cast and crew,’ remembers Marston. ‘Unfortunately we couldn’t shoot in Colombia because of the political situation. We shot in Ecuador instead, but we’re doing everything possible to safeguard all that which is Colombian about the project – and part of that is to make sure that everyone who is on screen is actually Colombian.'” [http://www.spanix.com/html/ShowNews.asp?ID=811&PG=8]

  • Fernando Rivas

    I found your review of Maria Full of Grace somewhate insensitive, though not entirely off the mark. I don’t think there’s too much playable humor in the airplane bathroom scene and the defecated pellets. I do think Catalina, the actress in the role, should have given more terror to the moment but I don’t think a bit of slapstick would have been the way to go.
    Your comparison to her performance with legendary Hollywood actresses is kind of laughable. You are mixing apples and oranges. This woman comes from a background as different from Hollywood as Earth from Venus. To hold her to that yardstick is blatantly ridiculous.
    As to Marston’s choice to include bits of the actual life of the actors in the script your comment about them not being real people shows a remarkably sterile disconnect. While they are not involved in the drug trade their connection with their homeland is a crucial part of this story and the
    authenticity which results from their
    particular brand of language and custom is as rare in films these days as truth.
    You also question Maria’s choice to get involved in the drug trade as unreal insofar as there is other work available. If you listen to the director’s commentary on the DVD he addresses this issue. Maria is not perfect as a character and is not meant to be. She has made a bad choice – not just because of necessity – but partly because of her rebellious nature.
    Another point of contention for you is the fact that the customs police release her. Again, Marston addresses this in the commentary. Fear of lawsuits and investigations as well as procedural change that might result from taking action keeps the agents from holding Maria. I agree, however, that the
    resolution of this issue in the film is a bit too pat. They might have been able to keep her at least a day or two to check for the ‘return’ of the pellets.
    In general I think you’re looking for something in this flick that is not there and not meant to be. What is there, Marston’s view of the drug trade and Colombian culture, is, from my own experiences in NYC, right on the money – or at least as a film is going to get these days.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Well, we disagree about slapstick. But I don’t consider a lack of humor in itself to constitute sensitivity, or any other virtue.

    Actually, I think you’re the one mixing apples and oranges when you write “this woman comes from a background as different from Hollywood as Earth from Venus,” if by “this woman” you mean Maria rather than the actress playing her. My point: by using a nonprofessional actress Marston doesn’t get the advantage of all that a professional actress, because of her drive and experience, can bring to a working-class role. Barbara Stanwyck was working class but Constance Bennett wasn’t–neither was “from Hollywood.” But it doesn’t matter b/c they worked as ACTRESSES not demographic representatives.

    “Remarkably sterile disconnect” paragraph: You haven’t made yourself clear. I’m not talking about the actors, I’m talking about the characters, and I repeat: Characters are not real people, not even when Colombians are cast as Colombians. As for the contributions of the actors to the script, you hardly need remind me of that since I singled it out for praise earlier in the review you’re ostensibly responding to. My point in that later paragraph is that the movie would offer a greater aesthetic experience if the writer-director had shaped the material more. He’s too respectful of his characters, as if they were real people, towards whom one does want to act respectfully. But with realistic fictional characters it’s part of the author’s JOB to second-guess them, to show their mixed motives, to satirize them, to see them not only as they’d like to be seen. The more varied a response he evokes, the more fully human they seem. By contrast, Maria has two dimensions: she gets into trouble b/c she’s stubborn but we have to sympathize with her b/c she’s had limited opportunities.

    I didn’t say Maria’s choice to get involved in the drug trade was “unreal” insofar as there is other work available. (What does “unreal” mean when we’re talking about a fiction film, all of which by definition is “unreal”? Did you mean “unrealistic”?) I said that without telling us what her other choices were, Marston could not give us a panoramic view of Colombian society that would enable us to understand her choice in a broader social context.

    While it’s interesting to know what Marston said on the DVD, that commentary isn’t part of the movie, which I saw and reviewed before the DVD was released. None of what you paraphrased from his commentary, however, contradicts what I said in the review.

    Did you mean for your tone to be so p.c.-authoritarian? It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie review.

  • http://www.raybanwayfarer-us.com Ray Ban Wayfarer

    A work of a harvest,exactly because of your troublesome writing, we can feel so much happiness, learn more our own understanding of their. The world could be so beautiful.