From one part of the world to another, Maria Full of Grace swirls with movement and stirs us with its torrents of feeling. Indeed, the film would drown us in its despair and anxiety were it not for Catalina Sandino Moreno's calm, sweetly innocent gaze. Keep your eyes on it, and you'll find the hope and grace you'll need to guide you through the tides of writer-director Joshua Marston's churning narrative. Marston opens his debut feature with a series of efficiently constructed scenes that interweave the harsh realities of rural life in Colombia with the plot and character detail that sets the film into action. Maria Alvarez (Moreno), a beautiful, spirited teenager, toils by day in a flower plantation, stripping thorns from roses, while chafing under the authority of an exploitative boss. By night, she shares a house cramped with three generations' worth of relatives for whom she has to fork over all her earnings. Otherwise, Maria puts up with an indifferent boyfriend, Juan (Wilson Guerrero), who seems utterly incapable of sharing her desire to break free from poverty. When Maria tells Juan she's pregnant, he suggests they get married, not out of love but because, in their culture, that's what you do. Seething with indignation, Maria refuses.
That grim reality coupled with her pregnancy incites the film's plot. Desperate for escape, Maria brashly accepts a job offer from Franklin (John Álex Toro), a smooth-talking, leather-jacketed city-boy, who she meets at a party. The offer involves swallowing dozens of heroin-filled capsules and transporting them from Bogotá to New York City—in other words, one of the thousands of "drug mules" involved in heroin trafficking. Franklin's promise of easy money and Maria's desperate desire for salvation from her old life are enough for her to enlist. The centerpiece of Marston's filmmaking is the "middle passage" in which Maria, along with three other mules, must survive the journey to New York and the barricade of customs officials on the other side. Tensions are ratcheted higher when, in mid-flight, Lucy, one of the mules, falls rapidly ill after a heroin capsule breaks inside her stomach. It's a harrowing sequence that transcends the film's cultural barriers to become a universally resonant, wrenching depiction of white-knuckle anxiety.
Once on the ground, though, Maria Full of Grace suffers near-fatally from a narrative identity crisis. Because Marston is not native to the culture he's depicting, his film feels like a fussy, academic distillation of grim physical detail. The film lacks the sensitive ease and flair that an indigenous filmmaker might have brought to the story, something Gregory Nava and Alfonso Cuarón brought to El Norte and Y Tu Mama Tambien, respectively. Marston compensates for this by galloping his film through so many tones and shades, through so much stultifying plot, that it constantly threatens to defeat the film's essential purpose: to bring to light what factors may drive someone into such a brutal and risky trade. To that end, Marston's script is burdened by too many characters, too much plot, too many ideas. The sprawl of characters that opens the film (including the superfluous Blanca, another mule, who accompanies Maria and nags her for the rest of her ordeal) give the film a top-heavy feel because its themes of survival and the redeemed immigrant only emerge in its second half. When Maria's pregnancy is paralled with that of Lucy's immigrant sister, Carla, the plight of the newly-arrived poor is introduced along with notions of America as the Promised Land, you can feel the film breaking a sweat.
A humanist immigrant drama. A gritty realist saga. A coming-of-age affirmation of life. Maria Full of Grace aspires to all those things, without quite being any of them. Still, Marston brings so much sincerity and intensity to his project that the film's good intentions can never be held in doubt. The film also showcases his exceptional skill at handling suspense and sensitive character development. But what ultimately saves the film is its central performance. The serenely beautiful Moreno is an on-screen natural who navigates the film's byzantine ambitions without losing a step. Her transition from a brash impoverished teenager to a toughened young woman and immigrant feels guileless and fiercely convincing. Hers is a debut for the ages.