While reviews of Maria Full of Grace have been almost unanimously positive, one wonders whether controversy will haunt Marston’s unusually sympathetic view of a heroin trafficker. Maria’s fiery persistence might be admirable, but those from the “just say no” camp will undoubtedly frown upon any portrait of a drug trafficker that veers from blatant, cut-and-dried evil.

“I wasn’t really interested in moralizing or taking a stance in that respect,” claims Marston. “As a filmmaker, it’s important to let your characters actually live on their own terms. I’m more interested in humanizing who the drug dealer is, and understanding it from that individual’s point of view.”

Certainly, “Maria Full of Grace” lays out the complex social dynamics that would lead a strong-willed young woman to push for something – anything – beyond the repressed, stale routine that Marston’s protagonist endures. An early moment in the film perfectly contrasts Maria’s adventurous nature to the defeated attitudes surrounding her. Behind a dilapidated building, she’s smooching with Juan (Wilson Guerrero), her aguardiente-guzzling boyfriend (aside from Juan, Colombian community culture is projected as a startlingly estrogen-heavy domain – men simply aren’t around). He wants to get her into the sack, suggesting that the two lovebirds depart to his house. Maria, however, would rather scale the abandoned shack and make love on the roof. After climbing to this elevated destination, she requests that he join her, but for Juan, the climbing is too much effort. He bails.

“There’s a certain machismo in Colombia,” suggests Marston, “and a certain place that women frequently occupy in society. It’s not enormously common for radical American feminism to be in Colombia, even though there are plenty of women there who are very strong and do stand up. Maria is created by certain circumstances in the culture, where the normal thing for a girl to do would be to get married to her boyfriend and have a family, and simply put up with a terrible job.

“Where is Maria getting her consciousness to do this? That’s always a conundrum. Where do people get consciousness to rise out of other situations, and fight back against it? Those are the kinds of situations I’m interested in, as a filmmaker.”

Even with the consciousness to elicit change, however, many Colombians who choose the mule method are destined for an early grave. There’s always the chance of a pellet exploding inside one’s stomach during these risky transport missions. Or perhaps the journey goes without a hitch, until they’re double-crossed or murdered by vicious henchmen waiting at destination points. Rather than reimbursing these “mule” middle men, ruthless dealers intent on increasing their take of the loot have been known to gut arriving transporters, removing the prized pellets from their stomachs and abandoning the bodies like so much troublesome baggage.

What happens then? Marston tracked down 57 year-old “Don” Orlando Tobon, a low-key legend in the Colombian community of Jackson Heights, Queens. Over 30 years ago, Tobon migrated to New York from Colombia and opened a tiny, cluttered travel agency. Later, he adopted a more unique niche, raising funds for the burials of anonymous, unclaimed mules who had died during their seedy treks to El Norte. Since opening his agency – and heart – to East Coast immigrants, Tobon has assisted over 300 families with funeral arrangements.

“I had heard about him as being sort of the ‘Mayor of Jackson Heights,’” Marston says of Tobon, who was cast in the film as Don Fernando (essentially playing himself). “I told him about the project. He was interested, because he had worked on sending bodies of mules back to Columbia to be buried. He was very open to the idea of the film, and very supportive of the script. I spent a lot of time in his office, just watching him work. That became the basis for his scenes. We rewrote a portion of the script for his character.”

The Colombian community appears to be embracing the film and its sensitive approach to a volatile social problem come public relations nightmare. In fact, March saw “Mariah Full of Grace” win six awards at Colombia’s Cartagena Film Festival.

Of course, “Maria Full of Grace” would never fly without the right lead actress. Despite having only limited theater study and a few unsuccessful commercial auditions on her resume, Sandino was chosen from over 800 young women auditioning for the part. She’s still a little overwhelmed by the plethora of festivals, awards, and attention.

“I couldn’t have come to America alone,” she humbly confesses. “I came to America because of the film. The movie brought me here. I couldn’t have just dropped everything and come, the way Maria did. I came here because of the movie, not because I’m brave. It’s very hard to be alone here. I wouldn’t have come here alone, leaving my family.

“I had never been to any of these festivals. It was a very cool thing to see. I didn’t know that this festival scene existed. All different movies. In Colombia, you just see American movies. But at festivals, you see French movies – movies from other countries. To see them in festivals and be in them is just amazing.

“And to be winning,” she exclaims with the enchanting smile of a star-in-the-making, “is even better.”

Posted on July 28, 2004 in Interviews by

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