In the poster for Joshua Marston's Maria Full of Grace, a Catholic communicant kneels to receive the Host -- except that the body and blood she'll be risking is her own: She's about to swallow a thumb-sized pellet filled with heroin.
Sixty-two of them, to be exact. Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) decides to become a drug courier, a "mule," but not because she's desperate. Her family in Columbia is working-class but not impoverished; her boyfriend's a slacker but not abusive; the vast majority of workers at the rose plantation where Maria works put up with the tedium of stripping thorns from stems, over and over. This isn't a sentimental tale of an oppressed girl forced into a life of crime: Maria makes a dangerous choice, then gets into trouble, then deals with it. Redeeming herself -- though only to face an uncertain future -- Maria shows that she's filled with grace under pressure.
Marston favors jump cuts and fast editing, which best serve the suspenseful middle section of the film. We feel compelled to watch as Maria learns exactly how to ingest the latex-wrapped packets, any one of which, by leaking in her stomach, could kill her; the paranoia of the Bogota-to-New York flight; getting past customs; the brutality of drug traffickers; the indignity of waiting to defecate the contraband diamonds in the excremental rough.
The burden of life as a mule attracts most of the attention here. But the documentary realism of most of Marston's mostly untested cast throws grit behind Moreno's vulnerable, gutsy performance. Patricia Rae especially, as the relative of an acquaintance -- and Maria's only hope in New York -- crams skepticism, strength and passion into a few minutes of screen time.
The tag line for Maria Full of Grace says that it's "based on 1,000 true stories." Because the drug trade's tide of exploitation and death has persisted for so long, Marston's film seems to say, the emphasis on interdiction in American drug policy needs to be re-examined. Mules, after all, are stubborn animals.