January 24, 2005 -- This is a hard-edged, but beautifully-told film about a young girl who finds herself working as a “mule” smuggling cocaine into the United States from Columbia. The film takes you step by step through the harsh realities of the drug trade. It is hard to watch some of these scenes about how girls are taught to swallow the drugs so they can be carried undetected through airport customs checkpoints.
The story is told in a lean, clean way, with no missteps. It is not manipulative, nor overly dramatic. The story unfolds logically and with real drama. It is character-driven. It is a story filled with tragedy, yet it is also uplifting as we see a young girl use her wits and courage to deal with a seemingly hopeless situation. Maria Alvarez, the young girl at the center of the story is played by Catalina Sandino Moreno. It is a wonderful performance.
The way the film gets us into the details of the drug-smuggling process is fascinating. Most stories about drugs don't actually show us how the drugs are smuggled into the United States, let alone show us how mules are recruited. This film does both, and it takes that extra step to show the human cost to those who get caught up in the drug trade. Some movies can talk the talk about drugs, but this one walks the walk. It shows how heartless the drug trade is without resorting to chase scenes, explosions, shootings, stabbings or other overt violence. The bad guys are cruel and heartless without being melodramatic. Shockingly, the bad guys are not a whole lot different that ordinary business men. To them drugs are just that, a business.
This film shows us the human cost of drugs without preaching, without manipulation and without resorting to cheap cinematic tricks. It does this by showing how quickly a human being can become a piece of meat when her usefulness as a drug smuggling vessel is past.
The film also gives us an idea of why some people would be tempted to smuggle drugs. When we first see Maria she is an unhappy girl working at a low-paying job in a small town near Bogotá, Columbia. She works all day stripping thorns off of roses. She and the other young girls in the film see drug smuggling as a way out of a boring and degrading job, and a way out of small town life. The life of a drug smuggler seems like a glamorous adventure to Maria at first.
Without harping on it, the film argues that Maria, and all the others in the film, even though they are far away in Columbia, nonetheless find themselves slaves to the huge forces generated in that remote, dominant country known as the United States of America. This is one of the best films of 2004. This film rates an A.
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