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Maria Full Of Grace Essay

2717 words - 11 pages

Joshua Marston's superior and shattering Maria Full of Grace manages two of the hardest tasks a narrative film can achieve. For one, it tells a story of personal misery, shot through with strong ideological overtones, without reducing its protagonist to a mere symbol or its screenplay to a simple polemic. Moreover, it is the rare film that starts out very strong and gets increasingly better. Add into the mix that this is the Brooklyn-based Marston's debut feature, directing a new actress in nearly every scene of an all-Spanish-language movie—none of the cultural backgrounds or political dilemmas represented in the movie reflect Marston's own biography or experience—and Maria Full of Grace ...view middle of the document...

It would have been quite easy for Marston to frame his screenplay as the kind of second-degree sentimental awakening that we find so often in American movies, a pattern that Sophie's Choice exemplifies with particularly bad taste: a relatively sheltered American is romantically inspired to write, think, and grieve through his connection to a lady of sorrows, one who rightfully deserves to be the center of her own story, and whose tale would be much more powerful if not for the needless and opportunistic pressure of the narrative frame.

The integrity, then, of Maria Full of Grace is what strikes you first, and wondrously, it never dissipates. Told with direct, humane attention to the lead character and her world, in the language she speaks and in a subdued style that matches her emotions without stylizing them into melodrama, Maria begins in the sweatshop where Maria and hundreds of coworkers strip the thorns from cultivated roses and ship the flowers to parts of the world where niceties still apply. The workers' hands copiously pricked and welted, the air thick with chemicals that protect the flowers but stifle the employees, this is one of recent cinema's more potent evocations of Third World sweatshop labor, and already Marston lets the physical details of the environment tell the story, with a minimum of embellishment. Technique in Maria Full of Grace is always proficient without being remotely flashy. In keeping the story moving without resorting to histrionics, Marston is helped immeasurably by the great indie-film editor Anne McCabe, who also brought her disciplined, measured rhythms to the very different tones of Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me. The screenplay allows one vivid instance of narrative development inside the factory, when an ailing Maria, denied permission to go to the bathroom, throws up on her stack of roses and is forced to wash them clean. Mostly, though, the conditions in the factory speak for themselves, foreshadowing a film where hardship and immiseration are the norms of life, not the peaks, valleys, and turning-points of drama.

Through about the first half-hour of Maria Full of Grace, Marston guides us through the various layers of Maria's discontent: a necessary context for the film, perhaps, but also the slightest bit schematic. These are the only moments in Maria where we see clearly how the movie is constructing itself, and the connect-the-dots literalism with which Marston frames his premise smacks a little of Hollywood storytelling strategies. Still, we certainly empathize as we learn that Maria's mother and sister force her to work and then impound most of her salary in order to care for the sister's newborn. We are further moved to pity upon discovering that Maria herself, who has mocked the timidity of her boyfriend and goaded him for a little excitement, has become pregnant at the age of 17. Her boyfriend lamely offers to marry her, and she can't believe he would even consider it, much less...

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