Maria Full of Grace(HBO Video, 12.7.2004)
As one of the best-reviewed foreign language films of 2004 (Stephen King named it the year's best film), Maria Full of Grace should be generating serious Oscar buzz in that category. But it's not. Since the film wasn't made in Colombia or creatively guided by a Colombian, the Academy ruled it ineligible as the Colombian candidate for best foreign language film. Of course, the film's still worth a rental, if only for its first 2 acts.
It's the story of Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a pregnant Colombian teenager who is fired from her job and, in a state of desperation, becomes a drug mule, swallowing a large quantity of heroin and smuggling it into the United States. The precarious physical torment of this situation -- for a lengthy stretch of the film, her life hangs by a thread -- makes for incredibly tense, suspenseful viewing. Unfortunately, soon after Maria arrives in the Unites States, the torment dies down and the film runs out of steam.
The only major feature on this disc is a fairly routine commentary by writer/director Joshua Marston, a surprisingly California-sounding guy, given the film's Spanish language, South American trappings. In describing his writing process, Marston makes an unfortunately-worded (but appropriate) statement: "I started writing and two days later it came out the other end." Another three years of re-writing and the shooting script was finished.
Most of the commentary deals with the practical complications of shooting in Ecuador -- they couldn't shoot in Colombia due to the country's political upheaval -- and the complications of shooting a film about drug smuggling. According to Marston, the drug pellets manufactured for the film were so real that they couldn't be shipped or brought on a plane. He also reveals that the actor making the pellets onscreen once performed the same task in real life.
Those with limited time should skip directly to the end of the commentary where Marston discusses some highlights of the film's reception: awards at Sundance and Berlin, the Colombian first lady's exceedingly enthusiastic response, and the story of a teenager who pulled-out of a drug mule mission after seeing the film. The United Nations even requested a print of Maria Full of Grace for educational purposes.
The only other features are two theatrical trailers: one international and one from the United States. Both should be avoided before seeing the film, particularly the U.S. trailer which provides a fairly thorough, chronological, blow-by-blow of the film's entire first half.
In spite of its weak conclusion, Maria Full of Grace is a worthy (if slightly overrated) debut and a mildly enjoyable DVD. -- Jonathan Doyle