This isn't yet another one of those movies about the traffic of Bolivian marching powder, its hapless victims and its pitiless propagators. It is perhaps yet another one of those movies about desperate Hispanics escaping their rural homelands and heading pa'l Norte. Which is a bit strange because you can be sure that the premise was explained to any number of potential backers as a story about a small town girl from Colombia persuaded to work as a mula for the narcos.
Peter Bradshaw for example, rues a lack of perspective in this film, comparing it unfavourably with Traffic. I think he's missing the point. Joshua Marston has very intentionally crafted a microcosmic, very personal drama.
The camera picks up Maria Alvarez just before she chances her future on an all-expenses paid trip to New York with an unborn child and 65 condom-wrapped pepas of cocaine in her belly. It never leaves her until the titles roll. She's one of those smart, characterful woman-girls that makes some very un-smart decisions, but somehow muddles her way through to a destiny that at least contains the possibility of self-realisation.
For the first twenty minutes I was ready to be underwhelmed, doubting that I would learn or feel anything that I hadn't already experienced through fifteen years in Central America. But the story is far from formulaic, and you are soon captivated by its unpredictability and the way the menace that moves in on Maria's existence is always just subdued enough to leave her unharmed and defiant. The gun you expect to be pulled at some stage in the story never is.
Of course, it works primarily because its star is just fascinating to watch. In many ways what Catalina Sandino Moreno delivers here is more of a persona than a performance. I suspect that if the script had called for Maria to be a rape victim or a prostitute, her contribution would have been essentially similar - the role is about resistance fired by suppressed desperation, escaping somewhere, anywhere, before you've made all of the wrong decisions and compromises. To shore up our sympathies early on Maria is provided with a hopeless and heartless boyfriend, boss, mother and sister, but these are not strictly necessary.
John Costello has said that screenwriters ought to be able to express their premise as a question followed by complications. So for example, Sixth Sense would be "what happens when a psychologist treats a boy who claims to see dead people, but doesn't yet realise that he too is dead?" With this film though it's trickier. Assuming that the script-writer would have to pick the risky trip to America as the basic premise you get "what happens when a young girl from Colombia chooses to carry drugs into the USA but..." The character of Maria supplies a whole load of complications, but none are straightforward enough to complete the sentence in a way that does justice to the film. This is what makes it interesting.
Most American films track their characters' as they fall out of equilibrium and struggle to re-attain it before the end. Maria's plight is a combination of her personality and her circumstances. The journey at the heart of her story is an extraordinary one, but at the end she is really no closer to stability than before, because she is essentially an outsider - strong, good-natured yet naive.
Nevertheless, unlike El Norte this tale ends on a note of hope; and it's not the final situation that gives us a right to hope, rather the individual.
As Roger Ebert points out, Maria is a victim, but doesn't think like one. He also highlights the way that newcomer Marston has paid homage to his favourite fellow director Ken Loach by suggesting that the evil resides in the system and not in the individuals. Mainstream Hollywood, by contrast, tends to work by the assumption that the evil dissipates the moment the bad guy expires.
(A minor quibble, but from my recent experience of American airports I'm sure Maria would have been picked up and questioned at JFK before baggage reclaim and not after.)