Thursday, December 16, 2004

Maria Full of Grace Directed by Joshua Marston

Without a doubt a well made, and even thought-provoking film, Maria Full of Grace's magna culpa is that it isn't too much more than that. Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a young, pregnant woman, looking for a way out of her small hometown in Colombia. Her savior appears in the form of Franklin (John Alex Toro), a dime-store hood who has connections. He points Maria toward the life of a mule - a gastronomic narcotic vessel. Maria downs 62 suppository sized cocaine-filled pellets and proceeds to board a plane to New York in order to unload the cargo and get paid.

The film has been heralded for its strong, thick-skinned female lead. The operative word being female. On account of the thousands of years of misogyny, egalitarians have a tendency to latch onto any strong female role regardless of the structural integrity of the character. This reaction is superior to the alternative - a blasé, or even discriminate reaction toward female leads - but still is full of pitfalls. Case in point: Maria. She is as purported - strong, thick-skinned - but Maria is not a fully realized character. It is obvious that Maria has a desire to break free of her surroundings, but the question of why is never answered fully. She desires more money, but that on its own is a superficial logic at best. A better life could be an answer, but one far too vague. The result is a strong female character, but for what? Her strength seems, at the very least, irrelevant. To esteem her as a paradigm for female roles is to say that, no, we don't need a complex character, any female will do.

Not to distill a more-than-mediocre film to its flaws alone, Marston has created something of worth in Maria Full of Grace. Jim Denault's beautiful, organic cinematography is on par with the best films of the year, while Marston's script avoids both cheap sympathy for the third world and bitter vitriol for America. The latter is a remarkable feat considering how many other films have fallen into that trap in recent years (see: The Motorcycle Diaries and, to a lesser extent, City of God.) The Colombia-focused portion of the film is handled without pity, devoid of the ethnocentrism that can plague even the most philanthropic of endeavors. And then, in spite of the temptation Marston must have felt, he refrains from making New York an enemy. The landscape is overbearing, but no more than any unfamiliar place. Rather, Marston goes out of his way to write in one of the most endearing (and interesting) characters in the film, the kind-hearted Don Fernando, who helps Maria acclimate to the city.

Not a terrible film by any stretch, Maria Full of Grace is on par with most of the "good" films put out by Hollywood. With a little more character development, it could have been one of the better films of the year overall.


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