Maria Full of Grace (Spanish)

It occurred to me several times while watching “Maria Full of Grace” that even without looking at the subtitles, and even though I don’t speak much Spanish, I could often tell what was going on simply through the actors’ body language, vocal inflection and attitude. The acting is so good that it nearly transcends language barriers.

I won’t say the film itself is quite that good, but it is impressive, the work of a first-time writer director, Joshua Marston, and a large number of semi-experienced actors who understand realism is most convincing for a harrowing story like this one.

The Maria of the title, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, is a 17-year-old girl in a tiny Colombian village. She has a job de-thorning roses, a job which she quits after her unsympathetic boss won’t let her go to the bathroom when she’s sick, and then makes her wash the vomit off the roses she pukes on.

Unfortunately, Maria lives with her grandmother, mother, sister and nephew, all of whom depend on her for income. She has an unresponsive, sex-addled boyfriend who gives her little support, and is even less useful after she announces she is pregnant.

In the midst of these desperate times, Maria and her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) meet Lucy (Guilied Lopez), barely older than they but more experienced in life. She has worked as a drug mule, swallowing little canisters of heroin and transporting them that way to New York. Her employer, Franklin (John Alex Toro), needs more mules, and Maria and Blanca need money.

And so Maria, full of grace and heroin, embarks on a journey that will find her in New York City, where more problems await her. Moreno plays Maria beautifully, with resolution and dignity, even as Maria engages in perhaps the least dignified job in all the world. (You have to swallow the stuff, then you have to crap it out, then you have to clean it off and hand it over to someone. And Maria thought her de-thorning job was bad.)

Marston’s script and direction are polished. The only trouble with the whole thing is that it is, when you get down to it, yet another movie about yet another young person trapped in yet another set of dire circumstances. It’s a “good person in a bad situation” movie, and while the grim realities of life are dealt with dramatically and capably, it is not as inspiring as perhaps it means to be. It may transcend language, but it doesn’t quite overcome the pitfall of cliché.

B (1 hr., 41 min.; in Spanish with subtitles; R, some harsh profanity, some drug use.)