BY PATRICIA DRAZNIN
Like most 17-year-old Colombians, Maria is trapped. Her wages at the rose plantation barely support her, let alone her mother, her sister, and her sister’s fatherless baby. Maria deeply resents her family for depending on her. And she resents her job supervisor for not being more respectful. And if that’s not enough, she discovers that her boyfriend, for whom she has no amorous feelings, has gotten her pregnant.
The proud Maria quits her job with no options on the horizon. Until she entertains the lucrative but risky proposition of being a “mule” or heroin smuggler. Lured by a $5000 paycheck for a short adventure to New York with the appearance of little risk, Maria signs on. Ironically, while she quit her plantation job to maintain her dignity, she is about to risk her life to get treated like freight.
The triumph of this quasi-documentary lies in its ability to tell Maria’s story so gently that its full impact may elude us until we have time to digest what we’ve seen. And digest is the operative word, as a mule’s job is transporting two pounds of heroin from Bogota to New York by swallowing 60 thumb-sized pellets. And if one pellet breaks, the transporter dies.
Casting first-time actors, including Oscar-nominated Catalina Sandino Mareno as Maria, newcomer writer/director Joshua Marston reveals this disturbing underground story. And the role of real-life humanitarian Don Fernando stars Orlando Tobón, who finds employment for Colombian immigrants of Queens, NY, and raises funds for the burials of mules who perish on the job.
While a couple of plot points do not get fully addressed, we are nonetheless amazed by the chilling account of Maria, a brave young woman of extraordinary character. Marston’s extensive research delivers a slice of celluloid reality that is shown in Columbia to dissuade its citizens from entering an illegal vocation where arrest or death are likely, but no one will care. Because in the powerful Colombian underworld, drugs and money are sacred, and human life is cheap. (Spanish with English subtitles)