They're called mules, as if they carried the drugs on their backs. But these pack animals don't walk, they fly across the U.S. border, and the drugs are lodged in their digestive tracts, ready to be expelled, with a little help from a laxative, once they've made it through customs. Why a beautiful young woman would want to put herself through this ordeal, which can result in prison or death, is the subject of Maria Full of Grace, Joshua Marston's even-tempered look at the weakest link in the Colombian drug trade. Maria (Catalino Sandino Moreno) isn't a criminal type, but neither is she the saintly type. She's just a 17-year-old who feels trapped by her life and longs to breathe what George W. Bush would call the fresh air of freedom.
Marston, who wrote and directed the movie, spends plenty of time establishing Maria's life in Colombia. She works on a flower plantation, stripping the thorns from roses, and it leaves her feeling rather prickly. So does her family, which demands the largest share of her paycheck, and her boyfriend, who's gotten her pregnant but still seems like a kid himself. There must be a way out of this mess, and Maria thinks she sees it when a guy on a motorcycle offers her a job with lots of travel. "How much would I get?" she asks, knowing full well what he's talking about. And the answer registers so subtly on Maria's face - Moreno, in her first film, gives a superbly naturalistic performance - that we know it's an offer she can't refuse.
Even so, it's almost literally more than she can swallow. Although she practices with grapes, neither Maria nor we are prepared for the ingestion of 62 pellets of heroin wrapped in latex, each pellet the size of a walnut. (A ruptured one can be fatal.) Marston shoots this scene with the same utter lack of sentimentality that he brings to all the other ones, leaving us to decide for ourselves whether Maria is more sinner or sinned against. Either way, she shows a lot of spunk as the drug deal goes south after she's gone north, stranding her in Queens. Like a novelist, Marston has been sprinkling symbols throughout the movie - the bloody thorns, the wafer-like pellets. But it's a subway sign that gives away his theme: "It's What's Inside That Counts."