Sunday, January 16, 2005

full of what?

maria full of grace, which came out earlier this year, was greeted with such acclaim that i never expected that when i saw it i wouldn't be crazy about it. i also never expected to see it. a story about a third-world girl who becomes a mule in order to get to america? couldn't i admire its ideas without having to subject myself to actually watching it?

but the other night, there we were, a bunch of us, in a room with a tv, a vcr, and maria full of grace. none of us could fit into the vcr, so she did. that was that.

it's not that i didn't like the movie. i admired its ideas, its forthrightness, its ability to wade right into melodramatic territory without becoming melodramatic. the best part was its representation of the drug smuggling itself: maria, the main character, and a couple other girls undertaking the same daunting task, must each swallow over 60 balloons of cocaine. (or heroin, it's never made clear.) as someone who could only force my body to take pills THIS YEAR, this was beyond harrowing, and truly visceral, to watch.

then it gets worse. the girls must fly to new york with 60 pellets in their stomachs and nothing else, since they're forbidden from eating and drinking 24 hours in advance. the girls' inital awe of being on a plane for the first time gradually morphs into intense discomfort. and the film doesn't flinch from showing digestive distress: over and over, the girls make their way to the bathroom, expel some pellets, wash them with toothpaste, and swallow them again. it takes tremendous, quiet willpower.

while the movie gets points for not sugarcoating its subjects or casting judgement on its protagonists for ... well, drug smuggling and illegal immigration, it loses some for its treatment of its star. everything and everyone besides maria is treated with gritty naturalism, but she herself never gets dirty. true, maria is startlingly beautiful -- and graceful (hence the title?) -- but no one could make the journey she made without a hair out of place or a moral fiber torn. by keeping her above the fray, the film keeps our admiration for maria unchallenged.

the other big issue, not unrelated to the first, is maria's pregnancy, the weirdest portrayal of a pregnancy i've ever seen. on a personal level, with maria, you never see the conflict play out: she doesn't love the baby's father & she expresses her fear of being trapped by a child the way her sister has been. she's not a romantic. yet she never seems upset by her own pregnancy. she merely accepts it.

on a physical level, the portrayal is all over the place. she vomits once, and that's it for morning sickness. her stomach is perfectly flat (she's only about 2 months gone) yet once in the united states & she gets an ultra-sound at a free clinic, there's a fully developed baby on the screen!

there's also the fascinating and undeveloped parallel between muling and pregnancy -- in both cases, maria's body is used to transport precious cargo from one world to another, and that the world cares more about the cargo than the woman. in any event, maria's performance is an achievement and the movie does stick with you. i just wish the film had a little more of the courage of its convictions.

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