Maria Full of Grace Explores The Risky Passage to a New World

Joshua Marston’s remarkable feature-film debut Maria Full of Grace , from his own screenplay, is itself graced with a marvelously charismatic performance by Colombian newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno. In the harrowing and yet heroic role of 17-year-old Maria Alvarez, Ms. Moreno’s character is full not only of grace, but also water-soaked pouches of heroin concealed in her stomach-the price of passage to the land of opportunity for both herself and her unborn baby.

Mr. Marston has managed to avoid all the traps of this sensational and potentially sickening subject: the recruitment and exploitation of “mules” acting as human drug conveyor belts from Bogotá, Colombia, to New York. The writer-director obviously researched his material thoroughly and takes his time establishing the economic motivation for “mules” like Maria, who accept life-threatening risks on their comparatively high-paying missions.

Maria is from a small rural town north of Bogotá. She lives in a small house with her grandmother, mother, sister and infant nephew. Each morning, she leaves before dawn to catch the bus that takes her to work at the large industrial rose plantation just outside of town. Once there, Maria spends long hours removing thorns from the roses for very low wages (consistent with Colombia’s annual average income of $1,830). Maria and her best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), both yearn for a better life.

Life in Maria’s hometown is not all sweatshop sorrow, though, particularly when there’s a party on the plaza on the weekends, with live salsa music. Maria dances feverishly with any partner she can find. As we slowly get to know her, we see signs in her eyes that she’s restless with her limited options, embodied by her stick-in-the-mud boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guererro), who’s content to mope around without ambition. Juan has managed to get Maria pregnant, however, and he even half-heartedly offers to marry her-except that they’d have to live in his mother’s house with eight other people.

Maria counters that his mother hates her, but Juan will not hear of living in Maria’s mother’s house, because that would be “unmanly.”

This grotesque level of machismo helps convince Maria to go to Bogotá with a shady young acquaintance who owns a motorcycle. The second act of Maria Full of Grace is thus set into motion. This leisurely development of Maria’s character is characteristic of the film’s unhurried, unruffled and unhysterical treatment of each stage of her descent into hell, all the way to her epiphany and eventual self-salvation.

The flight from Bogotá to New York is nail-bitingly suspenseful, as Maria, Blanca and a new friend named Lucy must reassure one another that they will survive their ordeal. (If one of the pouches breaks in her stomach, the mule will very likely die from the resulting heroin overdose.) When Lucy begins complaining that she doesn’t feel well, Maria has to reassure her that they will get a doctor in time in New York to save her. Maria also has to calm the perpetually fearful Blanca.

When she arrives in New York, Maria is immediately pulled aside by the authorities, who threaten to X-ray her stomach-until they realize that she’s pregnant. Apparently, regulations forbid X-raying pregnant women. Maria is saved by her baby, in a sense, but Lucy is not so lucky. The utter ruthlessness of the drug cartel injects the single note of lurid melodrama into the film, but even here, the two thugs out of central casting who keep watch over the three “mules” until they excrete their precious cargo behave, in the end, with a modicum of decency and fairness.

But it’s Maria who never falters, who faces every threat to her very existence with courage and resolution. Her angelic smile as she listens to the heartbeat of her unborn baby compares in its madonna-like majesty with Anna Magnani’s smile at the miracle of her baby in Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle (1948). Still, the inevitable futility of the so-called war on drugs-like, one fears, the war on terror-is suggested by the film’s subtext: that there are millions of potential Marias in the Third World, just as there are an estimated six million addicts in the United States helping to make the drug trade a $46 billion industry.

It’s become a piece of conventional wisdom that Prohibition was an unwise experiment, however noble its intentions. The fact remains that there was a marked decrease in spousal abuse and cases of liver damage during the years it was in effect. Still, all that was outlawed during Prohibition was the sale and transport of alcoholic beverages. If the mere possession or consumption of alcohol had been illegal, half the people in America would have been imprisoned. Let’s legalize drugs and use the money saved to improve the living and working conditions of the world’s Marias. Quelle illusion grande …. In the meantime, don’t miss Maria Full of Grace ; it is the most amazing first film I have seen in a long time.

Couch Surfing

Patrice Leconte’s Intimate Strangers ( Confidences Trop Intimes ), from a screenplay by Mr. Leconte and Jérôme Tonnere, is the director’s 20th film in a 35-year career of pushing the envelope in a variety of genres. His most recent triumph was Man on the Train (2003), which celebrated the strange friendship between a whimsical bank robber and an adventure-seeking poetry teacher, who end up switching roles and life styles to follow their dream lives. Intimate Strangers explores the same path of psychic and professional dislocation, but this time between a man and a woman. Fabrice Luchini plays William Faber, a mildly repressed tax accountant with a quiet, well-ordered life; Sandrine Bonnaire plays Anna, a troubled woman who is seeking psychiatric help for a marriage that is going on the rocks.

As it turns out, Anna misunderstands some directions that she has received and opens the door to William’s office, thinking it’s the office of her psychiatrist, Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy). Before William can correct her mistake, Anna is pouring out all her most intimate secrets. William is so fascinated by her revelations that he decides to continue his role as an analyst just so that he can hear more. Not that the voluble Anna gives the dumbfounded William any time to explain her error: In a rush of confidences, she reveals that she has been married for four years to a layabout husband who stays at home while Anna supports them both working in an upscale luggage boutique. She hasn’t had sex with her husband for six months and fears that she’s going insane. But Anna is so exhilarated by the high she’s gotten from letting everything out that she impulsively sets a date for a second appointment with William, and leaves without giving him either her full name or her phone number.

Of course, Anna could be forgiven for mistaking the couch in William’s office (which he uses for afternoon naps) as that most telltale piece of an analyst’s furniture. Yet she soon discovers her error when she calls the real Dr. Monnier, who has figured out William’s deception. Yet nothing changes in Anna’s relationship with William: She enjoys the intensity with which he listens to her innermost secrets, though she is angry at first over his passive betrayal. For his part, William begins consulting Dr. Monnier about his own infatuation with Anna and his peculiar role as her confidante. This three-way ricochet of unusual insights is typical of the civilized texture of Mr. Leconte’s imagination. None of the main characters reacts boorishly to the sheer unexpectedness of the situation.

Hence, even when William begins to doubt the truth of Anna’s assertions, and even when his jealous ex-wife warns him about her, he persists in his obsession with Anna and what she’s come to represent in his life. And he’s rewarded by a confirmation of Anna’s truthfulness when her husband pops up in William’s office with a bizarre request-that William make love to Anna in their home, where the husband can watch. This eventually leads to William and Anna separately deciding to change the routines of their lives-which, after many detours, leads them to merge once again in a very original manner.

The thematic key to the film is embedded in a reference to a book that William lends Anna from his own library, a book she finds too “literary” for her taste. William has slyly described it as a gloomy story of unhappy English people. The book is Henry James’ magnificent novella, “The Beast in the Jungle,” which projects the extraordinary Jamesian insight into a life not lived with some of the richest prose in the English language.

James’ John Marcher finds himself in the same position at the beginning of the story as Mr. Leconte’s William Faber at the beginning of Intimate Strangers . But whereas William accepts Anna’s implicit challenge to uproot his stagnant life and pursue his heart’s desire, Marcher retreats from a similar challenge represented by May Bartram until it’s too late. As Marcher stands at May’s grave, James writes: “He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened-it was close; and instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.”

Mr. Luchini and Ms. Baye brilliantly lead William and Anna to a far more life-affirming modus vivendi than that envisaged by James for Marcher and May. In the process, Mr. Leconte has achieved nothing less than a feat of cinematic magic.

The Love Train

Sun Zhou’s Zhou Yu’s Train , from a screenplay by Mr. Sun, Bei Cun and Zhang Mei, brings back the ineffable Gong Li, the glorious muse and mistress of China’s greatest filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, and star of such classics as Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) and Shanghai Triad (1995). Ms. Gong served the same function for Western audiences in their discovery of Chinese cinema as Machiko Kyô and Kinuyo Tanaka did in their awakening to Japanese cinema through the works of Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa.

Unfortunately, since Ms. Gong parted company with Mr. Zhang, the creative loss has been felt on both sides. Mr. Sun’s Zhou Yu’s Train is a case in point: Its relentless, dream-like lyricism is undermined by a curiously insubstantial narrative about a young painter, Zhou Yu (Ms. Gong), who works in a ceramics factory in Samsung, an industrial city in northwest China. Twice a week, she takes a long train journey to the rural village of Chongyang in order to see and sleep with her lover, Chen Qing (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a shy, reclusive poet who lives in a dusty library, where he writes verses celebrating his love for Zhou Yu.

It’s a rather curious career conundrum: The poet can get his poems published in the newspapers, but he can’t find any publisher-short of paying a vanity press-to put them in a book. I wonder if serious poets in America have it any easier?

Zhou Yu has a more practical suitor in Zhang Quiang (Honglei Sun), a veterinarian who has seen her on the train and can’t get over her, no matter how many times she rebuffs him. The two men are not really rivals for the girl’s love; the rivalry is actually in Zhou Yu herself-between her mind and her heart, between reality and illusion, between being awake or lost in one’s dreams.

I cannot argue with critics who found the film pretentious and inflated, but I somehow enjoyed it for its deification of the female on her endless journey to eventual oblivion. Come to think of it, this emphasis on the desirability of the female is what I also liked about Maria Full of Grace and Intimate Strangers . I guess it’s a subject I’m naturally interested in.

Film Notes

Film Forum is showing a beautiful new print of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), the film that first alerted us to the pernicious tyranny of the paparazzi. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss it-and if you have seen it, see it again.