Colombian teenager Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a mule who swallows cocoon-sized capsules of heroin for money. But she could just as easily be an El Salvadoran dishwasher, a Mexican sweatshop seamstress or a migrant fruit picker. Disposability is 17-year-old Maria's greatest asset to the world economy -- her humanity is nonexistent, the better to be used as casually as a Styrofoam cup and then thrown away.
It is that harsh reality, as well as director Joshua Marston's matter-of-fact telling, that makes the deepest impression in Maria. Its heroine works a go-nowhere job taking thorns off roses at a Colombian flower factory. The irony is that Maria works every day with these symbols of fresh, blooming femininity, but is herself spiritually wilting in a modern sweatshop.
When Maria gets pregnant and sees the long stretch of hardworking poverty on the horizon, she is inspired to make a change. She agrees to swallow a bellyful of heroin and board an airplane bound for America. While on the flight, she spots at least three other girls paid to do the same. The drug traffickers' cavalier use of her body to transport drugs makes it impossible not to think of the other economic avenue open to impoverished young women: sex work. But Marston is shrewd for choosing a less sensational way of dramatizing the reality that women are often the ones who end up on the absolute bottom of the economic pyramid.
Part of the critical attention Maria has received is in no small part due to the actress who plays her. Colombian actress Moreno wears her prettiness like a shroud -- her unchanging emotions mimic the blank expressions of a saint or a serene chapel Virgin Mary. But where saints are selfless, Maria has a human being's survival instincts. Arriving in Jamaica Hills, Queens, and having tasted the larger world, she resists womanly martyrdom and commits a selfish act for herself, but also for her unborn child. Opens July 30 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. -- Felicia Feaster