July 26, 2004 12:00 PM

Catalina Sandino Moreno

Rightfully a hit at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, this achingly bittersweet story is about a Colombian teenager who becomes a drug smuggler to escape a life of severely limited options. Maria Alvarez (Moreno) is 17, lives with her grandmother, mother and older sister in a village near Bogotá and earns much of the family’s tiny income working at a factory stripping thorns from roses. When she is offered a chance to make $5,000 by becoming a drug mule—swallowing dozens of rubber sheaths stuffed with heroin and then boarding a flight to the U.S.—she takes the job.

Maria Full of Grace plunges viewers matter-of-factly into the grim realities of being a mule. Along with Maria, we learn the hows of carefully downing thumb-sized tubes of heroin (knowing that if one tears inside, it will kill you) and the harsh methods by which those pellets are collected at the end of the journey. Throughout, first-time director-writer Joshua Marston endows Maria with pluck, smarts and fortitude, all of which she will need to survive. Moreno, a former college student from Colombia making her movie debut, is a lovely, natural actress with a smile as brave as they come. (R)

DRAMA

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