Dir: Joshua Marston. US/Colombia. 2004. 101mins.

Yet further confirmation that HBO Films is now the beating heart of US independent cinema, Maria Full Of Grace is a riveting portrait of drug mules transporting heroin from Colombia into the US which is as much intense thriller as it is powerful social comment.

A slot in competition at Berlin will introduce Marston's sensational directorial debut to European audiences after a US premiere in competition at Sundance last week which spawned immediate comparisons between Marston and Ken Loach and the best social realists.

The film is shot almost entirely in Spanish, but Fine Line will release it theatrically in North America as a contender in next year's awards season (it should qualify as Colombia's foreign language Oscar entry, for starters), and theatrical sales in international territories through HBO Films London will be plentiful. With its fascinating insights into the world of drug trafficking driving publicity, not to mention outstanding reviews, Maria has the potential to create a stir in arthouses everywhere.

The film's assured storytelling thrust was refreshing at Sundance where narrative lapses and plot trickery were the order of the day. Marston, who also wrote the screenplay, efficiently sets the scene and introduces his characters and their relationships before driving them into a maelstrom of danger.

Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Maria, a beautiful 17 year-old desperate to escape her existence as a manual worker in a rose plantation in rural Colombia, her unambitious boyfriend (Guerrero) and the stifling poverty of her home life.

Having quit her job in a fury and discovered that she is pregnant, Maria plans to move to Bogota to become a maid but she is swayed by a man she meets at a party (Toro) to come and meet his boss (Gomez), a drug lord who offers her big money in return for a trip to New York as a courier. Maria accepts.

The job is simple. Swallow some 'rolls of film', go to New York, excrete them out at the other end and be paid $100 per roll. In Colombia, it's a ticket to financial independence.

Maria swallows 62 pellets of what one can only assume is heroin. A seasoned mule Lucy (Lopez) whom Maria befriends explains how to swallow the pellets without breaking them and that if one of them explodes inside her stomach, she will die.

On the flight from Bogota to New York, Maria sees three other women carrying drug shipments in their stomachs - her best friend Blanca (Vega), who has also become involved in the scheme, Lucy and a third woman.

The nerve-crunching scenes on the aircraft, where it appears that Lucy is getting sick and Maria has to reswallow two pellets, set the tone for the rest of the film. These hapless women have entered a world of physical and legal danger which could see them arrested and imprisoned or dead. When they land in New York, one of the four is arrested, one dies and two go on the run.

Assisted by a tremendously natural young cast, the compassionate Marston assiduously avoids the cliches which even Steven Soderbergh fell prey to in the similarly-themed Traffic. But like Traffic, his story of participants in the drug trade is unusual, often horrifying and compulsive to watch. Distributors take note. It's a must-see.

Prod cos: HBO Films, Tucan Producciones, Altercine
US dist:
Fine Line/HBO
Int'l sales:
HBO Films London
Paul Mezey
Jim Denault
Prod des:
Monica Marulanda, Debbie De Villa
Anne McCabe, Lee Percy
Jacobo Lieberman, Leonardo Heiblum
Main cast:
Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae, Jaime Osorio Gomez, Wilson Guerrero, Jhon Alex Toro