Headstrong but lacking direction, 17-year-old Colombian protagonist Catalina Sandino Moreno faces stark choices at the beginning of Maria Full Of Grace. After clashing with her domineering boss at a rose plantation, she's unemployed, broke, and pregnant by a similarly aimless boy she has no intention of marrying. So when a cute, charming young man on a motorcycle offers her a chance to make quick money by transporting heroin to the U.S., she doesn't need much persuading. Shortly thereafter, the film begins depicting—with hypnotic, viscerally disturbing, matter-of-fact directness—the peculiar logistics by which the human gastrointestinal system can become a tool to transport poison from one country to the next.
Moreno's new boss eases her into the shadowy criminal underworld with transparently pragmatic paternalism, but once in flight to the U.S., she's confronted with a bleak series of variables for which her sketchy training in no way prepared her. What follows is grim but never gratuitous: Moreno is soon gummed up in a sadistic system that transforms human beings into sentient storage containers, but she also regularly benefits from simple human kindness.
Writer-director Joshua Marston smartly lets the drama and suspense unfold organically, taking an evenhanded, neo-realist approach that only adds to the horror of Moreno's predicament. He's assisted by fine, understated performances, especially from Moreno, who skillfully balances trembling vulnerability with steely resolve.
Moreno has been assured that the U.S. is a place where things are almost too perfect, but Maria Full Of Grace sees America and Columbia as locked in a sick state of symbiosis, with the latter cheaply and inhumanely supplying the other's needs, whether in the form of flowers or heroin. The film derives much of its queasy power from its acknowledgment that the cruel economics of the hard-drug trade merely represent capitalism at its cold-blooded extreme.