[Marxism] Maria Full of Grace

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 7 08:58:37 MDT 2004


The 1989 British TV miniseries "Traffik" showed how the tentacles of the 
heroin trade reached both upwards and downwards, to rich and poor alike. 
One of the main characters was an impoverished opium farmer in Pakistan, 
who is forced into becoming a low-level employee of a trafficker after 
the army destroys his crops in an anti-drug sweep. When Steven 
Soderbergh remade the film as "Traffic" in 2000 and relocated it in the 
Mexican drug trade, he dispensed with all of the economically marginal 
characters who made the British film so compelling in class terms.

Writer-director Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace," now showing in 
New York theaters, turns "Traffic" upside down. Dispensing completely 
with wealthy or powerful characters, either in the drug trade or in law 
enforcement, it focuses on lowly "mules." At the low end of business, 
this is the easiest way to avoid detection. Desperately poor Colombians 
are enticed into swallowing dozens of heroin pellets wrapped in condoms 
in exchange for a few thousand dollars. A promise of such a small 
fortune is worth the risk of a pellet breaking inside one's stomach and 
certain death.

Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a pregnant seventeen year old who has 
a job removing thorns from rose stems in a suburb of Bogotá. When an 
attack of morning sickness forces her to ask permission from the foreman 
to go to the bathroom, he tells her that she has already had a break and 
to continue working. She then throws up on a pile of roses, which he 
tells her to clean up and put back on the assembly line. In this 
Colombia factory, low wages and indignity go hand in hand. Despite 
lacking an alternative, she decides to quit.

Maria's boyfriend is in no position to help out, even if he loved her. 
He lives with ten other family members in a small house. But it is not 
his meager economic prospects that repel her. Rather it is his limited 
horizons on life overall. Early in the film she invites him to climb to 
the roof of her family's house so that they can make love in privacy 
while enjoying the view. He turns her down, thus symbolizing his own 
pedestrian nature. She, on the other hand, scales the walls and surveys 
the surrounding countryside with a victorious expression on her face. 
This is not a woman willing to be bound by social and familial conventions.

Since her economic prospects are so limited, she becomes a willing 
recruit to the drug trade. In a Bogotá saloon, she is introduced to a 
local dealer who lays out the job description as if she were applying to 
be a nurse or a secretary. They provide the passport, visa and drugs. 
She flies to New York City, where she will be greeted by his henchmen 
who will retrieve the drugs which by that point will have reached the 
final passages of her digestive system. Then and only then will she be 
paid. If any of the drugs are stolen, her family will be paid a visit by 
gang members. This veiled threat, uttered in a matter-of-fact manner, is 
emblematic of a film that has little use for the sort of pyrotechnics 
that typifies "Traffic", "Scarface" et al. In this film, economic duress 
rather than a gun regulates behavior.

Her biggest trial is learning how to swallow the pellets. Lucy (Guilied 
Lopez), a veteran of the Bogotá-New York City connection, trains her 
with large grapes. After she has mastered this inhuman task, she is 
brought to the headquarters of the drug gang where she is fed more than 
fifty pellets during a long night. When she is allowed a meal break, 
they make sure to put a pellet in a bowl of soup. In either the 
Taylorist flower or drug trade, not a moment is wasted.

When Maria arrives in New York City, everything goes wrong. After Lucy, 
Maria and another mule--a fellow flower factory employee and friend 
named Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega)--are brought to a cheap hotel, Lucy 
becomes seriously ill from a pellet that has broken in transit. She is 
then killed by the two gangsters there to gather up the drugs. Maria and 
Blanca flee to a Colombian neighborhood in Queens, where they take 
refuge in the cramped apartment of Lucy's sister. The remainder of the 
film is involved with their desperate struggle to get a foothold in the 
United States, a country that Lucy described to her as "too perfect" 
when she first met her. At this point, the film unites drug and 
immigration themes in a seamless manner and begins to evoke "El Norte," 
the memorable story of Guatemalan refugees trying to make it in Los 
Angeles. If Maria has not succeeded in the flower or drug business, 
surely there will be some other way for her to make it in the Land of 
Plenty. Her prospects for success remain an open question at the end of 
this powerfully realistic film.

If she will make it, it will be because of people like Don Fernando, a 
character who helps recent immigrants out from his travel agency office. 
Don Fernando is played by Orlando Tobon, who runs a travel agency in 
Jackson Heights.

The Los Angeles Times (Aug. 4, 2004) reported that Tobon "often declines 
to charge customers for his assistance. Lifting the spirits and chances 
of Spanish-speaking immigrants, he ladles out suggestions on where to 
look for a job, an apartment or an immigration lawyer, or how to respond 
to a parking ticket, an eviction notice or even a supervisor's sexual 
advances." Local residents call him "the mayor of Little Colombia." 
Tobon says, "I sleep well at night. All my life I do this type of thing 
for others because my mother taught me to help people, and even my 
grandfather was doing this." Ultimately, this film is about such people 
rather than sneering gangsters.

Marston is an exceptional talent. The Village Voice reveals that he 
wrote the first draft of the script in 48 hours. Marston received a 
master's degree in political science at the University of Chicago before 
enrolling in the NYU film school. The Voice reports that "To avoid the 
clichés of the drug thriller and give the material an emotional reality, 
he spent the next two years researching drug mules and Colombian daily 
life."

The film is produced by Paul Mezey, who also produced "La Ciudad," 
another powerful story of Latino immigrants in New York City. The work 
of people like Marston and Mezey is a credit to the idealism of many 
people working in independent film today. "Maria Full of Grace" is not 
to be missed.

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Maria Full of Grace website: http://www.mariafullofgrace.com/main.html

Review of Traffik/Traffic: 
http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/traffic.htm

Review of La Ciudad: 
http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/La_Ciudad.htm


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