Last spring, a teenager went to the movies in Bogota and watched ''Maria Full of Grace,'' a gritty drama about Colombian drug mules. A few weeks later, he called one of the film's New York-based producers. ''He said that he was supposed to be a mule, had already received an advance, had a ticket [to the States], and decided to pull out,'' says writer-director Joshua Marston. ''He'd seen the film three times and felt that it had saved his life.''
As validation goes, that's about as rewarding as it gets -- especially for a first-time filmmaker determined to make a compelling movie about a culture not his own. ''The intention [was to] confront stereotypes, and [give] a portrayal of the drug war that was authentic and realistic, from the point of view of the person at the bottom of the totem pole,'' explains 35-year-old California native (and NYU film-school graduate) Marston. ''Because I'm not Colombian, I was very nervous about getting it right. That nervousness prodded me to make sure that I was getting the truth.''
Shot in New York and Ecuador (political turmoil in Colombia ruled out filming there) in 2001, the $3 million indie presents the drug trade from the perspective of Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a 17-year-old so desperate to escape her impoverished life on the outskirts of Bogota that she becomes a ''mula'' who has to swallow 62 latex-covered heroin pellets to be smuggled into the United States. When the movie premiered last winter at the Sundance Film Festival, it took home the Dramatic Audience award. And the prizes didn't stop there: It snagged two at the Berlin Film Festival in February and six more at Colombia's Cartagena fest in March. Since opening in America last month, ''Maria'' has benefited from sterling reviews, grossing $1 million in just 65 theaters -- a promising debut for a Spanish-language release. Response from the Colombian community in New York City's Jackson Heights, where a portion of the film takes place, has been overwhelmingly positive, with plenty of sold-out shows. ''I always believed in the movie I was making,'' says Marston, ''but you don't dare to hope for such an incredible scenario.''
The film's biggest surprise, of course, is Maria herself, 23-year-old newcomer Moreno, whose acting experience was limited to local Bogota theater. Never intending to pursue an acting career (''In Colombia, you just act in ''telenovelas'' -- soap operas -- and I didn't want to do that,'' she says), Moreno auditioned for the role out of curiosity. ''You never hear about Americans going to Colombia and making movies. So it was like, `Okay, I'm just gonna go...to see who this American is,''' recalls Moreno, whose near-perfect English is a tribute to her British schooling in Bogota. (She's also been living in New York for the past two years.) ''When you see Colombia in American movies, there are usually guns, blood everywhere, and [the idea] that nobody should go there because they're gonna be kidnapped. So when I read the script, I was waiting for the gun to come out,'' she recalls. ''And it never happened. It was so cool that this American [showed] Colombian life how it is. We're not animals, we're not killing each other all the time.''