Film Review: Maria Full of Grace

Use of Spanish Helps Convey Realism in 2004 Film

maria full of grace
Catalina Sandino Moreno in "Maria Full of Grace". New Line Productions/HBO

About 'Maria Full of Grace'

"Maria Full of Grace" (María, llena eres de gracia in Spanish-language markets) is a 2004 HBO Films release about a 17-year-old Colombian girl who becomes a drug mule, transporting drugs to the United States in her digestive system. The film was released in the United States in Spanish with English subtitles.

Review of 'Maria Full of Grace'

Drug mules, those people who transport illicit drugs to the United States in the most dangerous way possible, are often portrayed as unsavory characters. But María Alvarez, the drug mule portrayed in Maria Full of Grace, doesn't fit the stereotype and may be more typical. She is a young resident of Colombia, working hard for not very much money, who sees a quick way of picking up some much-needed cash.

Catalina Sandino Moreno, who portrays María, does as much as any actor could to help us understand what it's like to be a drug mule. She appears in nearly every frame of this film, and even though this was her first film, the native Colombian, born in Bogotá, received a much-deserved Academy Award nomination as best actress for her role.

As the story develops, María is sometimes scared, sometimes naive, sometimes street-wise, sometimes confident, sometimes merely faking it. Sandino takes on all those emotions with seeming ease.

As the story develops, we are no more sure how it's going to turn out than the characters are. Will María get caught? Will the drugs find their way into her digestive system? Will people believe her? Will she ever see her family again?

Because Sandino makes María come across as such a real character, watching this film becomes something more than mere entertainment; we come to understand what could come to drive a person to do what she does.

What is interesting about Joshua Marston's writing and direction of this film is that it always avoids the cheap shots and the sensationalism that would be so easy in a film of this type. In fact, much of the film is underplayed. It would have been easy to fill this film with fright scenes and gratuitous violence. But instead, Marston lets us see life as it is lived by the characters. Just as María is, we are forced to imagine some of the off-screen violence, and in the end the reality is much more frightening. And, of course, Marston and/or HBO made the right choice in filming the movie in Spanish: In English, the film may have been more commercially successful, but it would have lost much of its realism and therefore its impact. Instead, Maria Full of Grace was one of the best films of 2004.

Content Advisory

As would be expected, Maria Full of Grace includes various don't-try-this-at-home scenes of drug ingestion. Despite moments of high tension, there is little on-screen violence, although there is off-screen violence that could be upsetting to some. There is no nudity, although there are references to premarital sex. Vulgar and/or offensive language is used on occasion. The film would probably be appropriate for most adults and older teens.

Linguistic Note

Even if you're fairly new to Spanish, you may notice something unusual about the dialogue in this film: Even when speaking to close friends and family members, the characters don't use , the familiar form of "you," as would be expected. Instead, they use the more formal usted. Such use of usted is one of the distinctive characteristics of Colombian Spanish. The few times you do hear used in this film, it comes across as a put-down of sorts.

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Linguistic note #2

In translating, context is everything. If you're learning Spanish, you may enjoy as you watch this film seeing how many different ways the phrase ¿Qué pasa? is translated in the subtitles. The phrase can be translated literally as "What is happening?" and that translation is a safe choice most of the time. But it may not capture best what the speaker means in the context.

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