ReviewsMaria, a girl full of grace and drugs (2004, Diciembre)
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Maria, a girl full of grace and drugs (2004, Diciembre)

“Maria Full of Grace”

A Colombian film about cocaine stirs up strong emotions.

By Carlos Peralta

December 22, 2004

for The Amsterdam Weekly


Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno.

(picture used without permission but with good intensions)

In Colombia you can buy fresh fruit juice from a hand-made kiosk in the middle of the road between two towns. The big cities are chaotic and energetic, and immense green mountains are shadowed against direct sunsets. Then there’s the way the nation dances, and the grinding daily struggle of the many for the pleasure of the few. Colombia is a country of strong contrasts, and none of its contrasts is more marked than that between everyday people and those who are involved in the country’s most notorious export: cocaine.

These varied aspects of the country are reflected in a new movie that premiered in Amsterdam last week, “Maria Full of Grace”, a Colombia-US co-production about the cocaine and heroine trade between the two countries. As a Colombian myself, I took to the film’s preparedness to look beyond the stereotype of a country ruled by drug barons. It was, quite simply, a relief to see my country and some of its issues represented in 3-D, and also a pleasure to see its landscape and personalities treated with respect.

A lot of the film’s strength lies in its central character, Maria Alvarez, played by young Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno in a performance that is indeed full of grace (perfectly cast by US Director Joshua Marston). Maria is a driven independent woman, living in a world were opportunities are scarce for the majority, for millions of people like her. While working in rural Colombia for an exporting-roses farm she senses an imminent painful routine and the closed paths that wait for her in the future. This is the vulnerability that takes her into the cocaine business spiral. To carry sixty-something 10-grams-capsules of cocaine in her stomach is a decision that comes out of despair not of wickedness. Her mission? To take the product from Colombia to New York. That journey might just be her way out into a whole different life, a whole different struggle.

Indeed, one of the main achievements of the movie is the way we come to understand that it is Maria Alvarez’s sense of her own dignity that gets her involved as a drugs mule. No excuses are made for her; to an extent she chooses to do it. It’s a choice between a high-dangerous risk or, at best, a “poverty salary” as a housemaid or as a factory worker or, at worst, permanent un-subsidized unemployment. And much of the rest of the film is concerned with the question whether her sense of her own dignity, which is her main strength, will be enough to get her through the ordeals which she faces as a result of her decision.

The arts are becoming increasingly international with the growth of the global economy, of course. But one of the paradoxes of internationalisation is that it can hinder, rather than help, a better appreciation of aspects of other countries. This is especially the case where internationalisation primarily means big corporate marketing budgets controlled from the centre. This leaves the way open for the ignorant proliferation of stereotypes. (Think, for instance, of the straggly-moustached Mexicans in pre-PC US films.) But this film is a bi-national production, with insights and contributions from both sides of the divide between the so-called First and Third Worlds, and it makes all the difference.

A varied crowd assembled at the Kriterion last Thursday to see it. After the screening, some of them gathered in the café. Dutch mature couples, local and international students, film lovers. Louise, a graphic designer from Denmark, said that she found the sequences set in Colombia the most interesting. She liked it that the film showed the way people `really live in Colombia’. That normal life goes on mixing work and parties and difficulties and pleasures. These were things she’d never seen portrayed in mainstream Western media. Like many people, Maria Alvarez’s life is both complex and simple. She is rooted in the place she is from, but she would be the kind of person drawn to travelling, to see the world for herself, if she had the chance. Unlike other people, she has no other way to do so, she thinks, than become a drugs mule.

A Dutch woman I talked to thought the movie was about `a strong woman, able to fight for a future and to make decisions and to make choices.’ The door to Zaal 1 was open, framing our conversation with its already empty red interior.

`It’s a moving story,’ the woman said. I agreed. There’s a moment when Maria wonders about the journey she’s about to take. She asks Lucy, an experienced `carrier’ girl-friend, about it. `And… how is it over there?’ Lucy answers: `There, everything is perfect, and straight!’

Maybe. At least, that’s what the developed world, with its network of railroads, its symmetric architecture, its skyscrapers and its measured, squared-off forests and fields looks like. That’s the dream–not perfection, but basic peace, and basic choice– that drives many like Maria to risk their lives for it.

I asked the woman and her friend if they’d seen a political message in the movie. They hesitated at the question. I say that from my point of view it’s something of a mystery why Colombia is stigmatised as the evil producer of cocaine, one of the drugs of choice in the developed world, while rich countries like Holland, which is a key producer of voguish recreational hard drugs like ecstasy, are never vilified in that way. If there’s a war on drugs in Colombia, why is there no war on drugs in Holland? Or for that matter, Kentucky, where huge quantities of consumer nicotine products are produced?

They think for a moment, and I see a mixture of shame and solidarity in the woman’s eyes when I tell her that I’m from Colombia. She asks me what do I think should be done to solve the cocaine and heroine problem.

I say legalise it, regulate it, and reduce the harm, as they do with regard to soft drugs in Holland. The woman’s friend appears to agree, but he has a reservation that’s linked to the political difficulties involved in legalising or tolerating hard drugs.

But it’s clear that legalisation would liberate Colombia from the chains that tie it to cocaine. The people of the country would be free of effects of the European and North American cocaine consumers’ money, which mainly finances the civil war between the government and the guerillas. That’s the society Maria Alvarez comes from.

The woman and her friend are thoughtful. All right, it’s a rave, but that’s partly the effect of seeing “Maria Full of Grace”. It’s not a preachy film, but it raises issues that need discussion.

They get ready to go, and we take our farewells. I ask their names. The woman hesitates when she hears that her comments might end up in a newspaper. Finally she says: `My name is Maria. That’s my second name actually. But you can say that my name is Maria.’

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[El “Punto de Ataque” es un concepto originado en la teoría dramática y se usa para definir el primer momento de desequilibrio en el arco narrativo del personaje principal de una historia].

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