There is a scene halfway through Maria Full of Grace in which the title character, a young Colombian woman smuggling drugs to America in her stomach, is stopped by suspicious U.S. Customs agents at New York's Kennedy Airport. Jobless with an unexpected pregnancy in a small Colombian town with few options, this Catholic girl just wanted to pay her family's bills without giving up her soul. Despite our collective fears about protecting borders in this security-conscious post-9/11 era, one can't help but root for the Americans in uniform to lose this round.

"This is a movie about a 17-year-old who's trying to find her place in the world, who's trying to find some independence and break out," writer-director Joshua Marston told WW recently during a brief Portland stop to promote the film. "That's what is making it a universal story that people identify with."

Marston's film follows Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a pregnant, rural Colombian girl, as she reluctantly agrees to swallow rubber-coated heroin capsules for transport into the United States in exchange for enough money to buy a house back home. The inevitable plot complications arrive, in the form of the American Drug Enforcement Administration, thuggish smugglers and the harsh New York City streets. And although Maria Full of Grace has its brutal and emotionally wrenching moments, Marston's film is careful not to be judgmental about either the protagonist's journey or the larger sociopolitical context.

"The first draft of the Maria script had a lot of extraneous information and facts about the drug war I tried to cram in there to make a political statement," recalls the frizzy-haired filmmaker. "But I realized in the rewriting process that the governing rule had to be what is true to Maria's experience. If it wasn't, it had to come out. This is a film about a girl figuring out her life."

Marston treats his protagonist with compassion but not kid gloves. He humanizes "mules," as they're called, who swallow sacks of cocaine and heroin to smuggle over the border in their stomachs. Yet this is no sappy ode to the oppressed. The American filmmaker also took on the added challenge--against the wishes of Hollywood producers--of writing and filming almost entirely in Spanish, a language in which he was only marginally adept, all in order to maintain authenticity.

Maria Full of Grace won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and during its recent opening weekend in New York earned the highest per-screen box-office numbers of any film in America. A key to the movie's success is its star, first-time actress Moreno. Marston's crew auditioned more than 800 women looking for someone to play Maria, and the filmmaker was on the verge of delaying his 2002 production when he found Moreno. The 23-year-old Colombian is mesmerizing, playing Maria with a natural approach that allows this precarious crossroads of the character's life to come through with a well-earned emotional weight.

Before playing a mule, "I thought they were just bad people who belonged in jail," the Bogota-born actress says. "You never hear about why they do it--the personal history. But the movie changed everything for me. Maria is unsatisfied with everything in her life. She hates her job. She doesn't have the support of her family or her boyfriend. She's not happy there. She needs to get out. She knows what can happen to her, that if the drugs in her stomach leak out, she'll be dead. But when you're 17, you think you're invincible."

Maria Full of Grace is a thoughtful depiction of morality strained, a cautionary tale about diving into the mirage of easy money, and an ode to a naive but headstrong girl in over her head. Valid as a condemnation of the drug war may be, the power of this film is its sympathetic but never sentimental depiction of a young woman brushing with the shadow of death in order to find salvation--and doing so, as the title suggests, with a hell of a lot of grace.

Maria Full of Grace

Rated ROpens Friday, Aug. 6.

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