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A Deep Throat for our times, Maria Full of Grace is about not sex, but drugs. Also class, globalization, immigration, and, of course, the gangster-controlled twilight between the United States’ stated principles and its citizens’ actual desires. In his impressive first film, New York–based writer-director Joshua Marston has distilled all these themes into a single person: a 17-year-old Colombian who comes to learn that there are worse things than stripping the thorns from roses in a small-town flower-processing plant.
Outgoing, impulsive Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is, understandably, dissatisfied. Her work is tedious and poorly paid, her family unsupportive, her boyfriend boring. Unlike the peasants of earlier eras, she’s heard enough about the world to know that other people live much bigger lives. Plus, she suspects that she’s pregnant, a development that traditionally ends adolescent rebellion. But Maria just grins when Juan (Wilson Guerrero) offers to marry her. Instead, she hitches a motorcycle ride to Bogotá.
The biker is Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), an amiable guy with a sinister job: He recruits “mules” to swallow small rubber tubes filled with heroin. The risks are high, including arrest and death. A packet that ruptures in a mule’s stomach can kill its carrier; so can an enforcer who thinks the gang has somehow been shortchanged. But a single run can earn $5,000, which is more than twice the average Colombian’s annual income. Maria soon meets Lucy (Guilied López), a veteran who shrugs that the work is neither easy nor hard. Yet Lucy is clearly conflicted about her job; on all her trips to New York, she’s never once visited her sister Carla (Patricia Rae), who lives in Jackson Heights.
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In a sequence that exemplifies the film’s documentarylike realism, Maria downs her shipment. Each of the 62 packets is a finger cut from a rubber glove, then filled, sealed, and coated with oil to facilitate swallowing. Maria, Lucy, and two other mules—including Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), a timid friend whom Maria tried to dissuade from entering the trade—endure a tense, claustrophobic flight to New York. (One squirmy detail: Any packet that’s excreted prematurely must be reswallowed.) Once the Colombian women arrive, things go wrong, and Maria and Blanca turn to their closest thing to a local acquaintance, Carla. Maria, however, finds herself unable to tell Carla what’s happened.
If Maria is facing potentially big trouble in Queens, she’s also juggling a lot more options than ever before in her life: The United States gives her choices, even if they’re not great ones. She quickly adjusts to this new environment and tries do the right thing. (She’s assisted by a Jackson Heights travel agent and community leader played by associate producer—and real-life Jackson Heights travel agent and community leader—Orlando Tobón.) Maria Full of Grace is nothing so simple as a pro-immigrant editorial, but it does show how a Colombian drug smuggler could be a fundamentally decent person.
The resolution of Maria’s New York problem is a little soft, but everything else in this film is sharp and sober. Marston forgoes flashy camerawork and obtrusive music, scoring some of the most effective scenes simply to ambient sound. (Elsewhere, Jacobo Lieberman and Leonardo Heiblum contribute wisps of guitar and piano.) Although the camera is mostly handheld, its movements are not conspicuous; cinematographer Jim Denault achieves a matter-of-fact intimacy that mirrors the story’s tone.
After writing a script based heavily on interviews with Colombian émigrés in New York, the director revised it during improvisations on location in Ecuador (substituting for politically unstable Colombia). But he made his most crucial choice in hiring Moreno, a theater student who had never acted professionally. She had to embody Maria Full of Grace’s concerns with remarkable self-possession. In response to the many unprecedented events that Maria encounters, Moreno keeps a straight face. It’s a plausible tactic for a teenager trying not to reveal too much of herself, yet its very guardedness suggests deeply felt emotions. This is a performance that perfectly complements the film’s aspiration to illuminate the larger forces behind one woman’s humble, half-understood quest for a better life.
If this is Friday, it must be time for another film featuring Michael Moore. The dumpy pundit has a smaller role in writer-director-narrator Robert Kane Pappas’ Orwell Rolls in His Grave, this week’s leftist-counterattack flick, than in The Corporation or (of course) his own Fahrenheit 9/11. Still, Moore’s presence suggests that Pappas’ film will round up the usual suspects, and it does: Here’s Danny Schecter, there’s Mark Crispin Miller, and across the way—barely visible through the sulfurous mists that demarcate the corporate-media abyss—is Rupert Murdoch.
Unlike the wildly overreaching The Corporation, Orwell Rolls in His Grave presents only a handful of theses: that consolidation has made America’s mass media less accurate and accountable; that these corrupted media have intentionally ignored stories that might injure the country’s rulers, notably members of the Bush clan; and that these adverse developments can all be explained with citations from Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, supplemented by occasional quotations from the philosophy of Joseph Goebbels.
Early in the film, Center for Public Integrity founder Charles Lewis opines that today’s corporate media constitute “the most powerful special interest in Washington.” What he means is that the same companies that bring us the evening news also lobby aggressively for laws and regulations that will benefit them: expansion of copyright powers, crackdowns on music and film “piracy,” easing of restrictions on the ownership of TV and radio stations, and so on. Disney, News Corp., Clear Channel, and their cousins do indeed want such things, and they often get them. But that doesn’t make the media mightier than the oil industry, defense contractors, or the many other corporate interests that strive tirelessly for their own advantage.
As the mass media have demonstrated frequently—and not just since 2000—they are unprepared to challenge popular leaders, look beyond official sources, question the national consensus, or otherwise pursue subjects that make their viewers (or readers) uncomfortable. Still, the film’s principal examples of stories the major news operations have bungled is suggestive, if not conclusive: Pappas thinks the Bush campaign filched Florida’s electoral votes in 2000 and that the Reagan campaign colluded with Iranian mullahs to hold U.S. hostages until after Carter lost the 1980 election. He may well be right, but neither accusation has been proved, and Orwell Rolls in His Grave adds no new evidence.
Pappas’ polemic would be more convincing if he seemed to know more about these subjects than the average Dan Rather viewer. But the film’s cheesy onscreen graphics include embarrassing typos (such as misspelling the name of polling company Gallup) and lapses. One shot is identified as showing “The Congressional Office Building,” suggesting that Pappas, a New Yorker who attended Georgetown University, hasn’t spent enough time on Capitol Hill to know there are more than one. Orwell probably would have gotten these details right.
Such media critics as Schecter, Miller, and Jeff Cohen—of Globalvision, NYU, and Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, respectively—are more cogent than the film they’re in. But the notion that the corporate media have become this country’s Thought Police misses an essential point: Unlike the residents of Orwell’s dystopia, Americans are under no obligation to believe what they hear from our Big Brothers.
Indeed, Pappas includes an anecdote from Independent Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders, who recalls when a constituent rebuked him for not voting against the federal inheritance tax. The guy didn’t know that his family, like the vast majority of Americans, wouldn’t be affected by the tax. Yet the particulars of the inheritance tax are not a secret. It may indeed be Orwellian for Bush to call this tariff the “death tax,” but people who buy his line are not victims of authoritarian mind control. They’re just not paying attention—which is something that broadsides as flimsy as Orwell Rolls in His Grave are unlikely to change.CP