Maria, a 17 year old living in rural Columbia, has a monotonous factory job, stripping the thorns off roses which her friend Blanca then packages into romantic bouquets. She shares a cramped concrete house with her sister, infant nephew and mother who demands she hand over her pay.
Pregnant, but unwilling to marry her less adventurous boyfriend just to “do the right thing”, her cheerless future prospects provoke her to stand up to her humiliating boss and quit her job. It’s a heroic act in the eyes of her teenage co-workers, but unemployment endangers both her and her family.
When Franklin offers to get her a high paying job that involves travel, Maria quickly realises what he’s talking about. A trip as a drug mule, smuggling cocaine into the US in her stomach, pays $5,000 and is a chance to transform her life.
Franklin lies to Maria about the amounts and risks involved, but she is not a passive victim. She seeks information from another mule, Lucy, the jaded veteran of two trips, who tells her how to act, how to dress — and that she will die if any of the pellets break.
Writer-director Joshua Marston did a huge amount of research into drug mules, talking to people imprisoned in the US, customs officials and health workers. The section of the film focusing on Maria’s trip is almost like a documentary re-enactment.
It shows the preparation of pellets by packing cocaine into the cut-off fingers of rubber gloves, the drugs taken to slow digestion and the anaesthetic preparation Maria takes while forcing down the 62 massive capsules.
There is no drug use and no drug users are shown in the film. Muling is shown as a job that is painful, degrading and extremely risky—but on a similar level to Maria’s former job in a pesticide-soaked rose plantation, having to ask permission for toilet breaks.
The risks are much higher, but as the pay is three times the average Colombian salary, it is clear why many mules choose the risks. After two trips Lucy has her own flat and nice furniture, something Maria could never achieve in a lifetime working in the plantation.
Although she becomes an international drug trafficker and a prime target in the “war on drugs”, Maria is no more than a human packing crate, exploited and, given the potential value of her cargo, massively underpaid.
The film is an implicit criticism of the policies that claim to deter smugglers. While dignified work and any economic security are unavailable, the attractions of muling will continue to outweigh the risks for many people.
The “war on drugs” was constructed to provide an amorphous enemy, in much the same way as the “war on terror” does.
It is also used to justify racist immigration laws, attacks on civil liberties and military adventures—though generally into South America rather than the Middle East.
It is still going on, and it is still people from circumstances like Maria’s who are providing the casualties.
Although Maria Full of Grace is mostly directed in a very plain, straightforward style, the religious allusions in the title continue in a cheeky theme of cocaine as the holy host, the substance that when swallowed transforms Maria’s life.
All the performances are fantastic, including that of Catalina Moreno as the impulsive and brave Maria. There’s also a cameo from Orlando Tobon, a Colombian community leader, who has repatriated the bodies of over 400 Colombians who died while muling.