Relative values — or no values at all

I like movies about characters who grow and reform. That’s why one would have thought it a no-brainer that I would like 2004’s Maria Full of Grace, which we finally got the other day, via Netflix. After all, the critics raved about its main character achieving the “grace” of the title. The premise as described in the reviews and promos is that a desperately poor, unemployed, pregnant Columbian girl gets herself a job as a mule, running cocaine into America, in order to get money from for her family. Her job proves so horrifying she reforms. Here’s how the San Francisco Chronicle introduced the movie:

A “Bonnie and Clyde” moment — when you find yourself rooting for the outlaw over the authorities — comes a third of the way into “Maria Full of Grace,” a revelatory independent film whose moments of incredible sadness are offset by the same state of grace that blesses its astonishing title character.

Here’s the Rolling Stones’ mini (and highly laudatory) review in its entirety:

Remember the name Catalina Sandino Moreno. The heartfelt and harrowing performance she gives here should put her in line for a heap of year-end awards. Moreno plays Maria Alvarez, a seventeen-year-old Colombian girl who can’t alleviate her family’s poverty with the pittance she earns slaving in a flower factory. Maria sees an out with an offer to become a mule — she can join other Colombian girls who smuggle drugs into the United States. Debuting director Joshua Marston, who also wrote the taut screenplay, shows Maria being taught to swallow drugs wrapped in packets — she sips soup to make them go down without gagging. If the drugs in her belly should seep out during Maria’s turbulent jet flight to New York, she could be poisoned or arrested or both. Marston builds incredible tension. But it’s the human drama etched on Moreno’s young, weary face that gives Maria its potent punch.

Roger Ebert is similarly thrilled by the movie:

Long-stemmed roses must come from somewhere, but I never gave the matter much thought until I saw “Maria Full of Grace,” which opens with Maria working an assembly line in Colombia, preparing the roses for shipment overseas. I guess I thought the florist picked them early every morning, while mockingbirds trilled. Maria is young and pretty and filled with fire, and when she finds she’s pregnant, she isn’t much impressed by the attitude of Juan, her loser boyfriend. She dumps her job and gets a ride to Bogota with a man who tells her she could make some nice money as a mule — a courier flying to New York with dozens of little Baggies of cocaine in her stomach.

***

Maria is a victim of economic pressures, but she doesn’t think like a victim. She has spunk and intelligence and can think on her feet, and the movie wisely avoids the usual cliches about the drug cartel and instead shows us a fairly shabby importing operation, run by people more slack-jawed than evil. Here is a drug movie with no machineguns and no chases. It focuses on its human story, and in Catalina Sandino Moreno, finds a bright-eyed, charismatic actress who engages our sympathy.

By the way, Ebert gets to the core of the critics’ love for the movie: Maria is a victim of economic pressures and her boyfriend isn’t good enough for her, both of which factors apparently validate Maria’s immoral choices.

I saw the movie very different. Maria is not a victim of the economy. Instead, she is a victim of her own sour, selfish personality — and that sour, selfish personality drives every minute of this ugly, demoralizing movie.

There’s no doubt that Maria doesn’t live a high end life. She works stripping thorns off roses, and it’s repetitive labor where the worker has to meet quotas. There’s no indication, though, that the work is unduly abusive, or even that the processing plant is any less pleasant than any other processing plant, including those in America. Her boss is a bully, but a lot of Maria’s problems with him appear to stem from her own oppositional personality.

Her boyfriend? Well, he’s nice enough looking and the main fault the movie gives him is that he doesn’t want to join Maria in an impulsive and pointless climb onto the roof of a building (the cad!). When he learns she’s pregnant, he immediately offers to marry her — which is probably the only moral moment in the movie. Maria turns him down with insults about what a pig he is, and immediately goes off with another man who introduces her to the drug trade.

I also don’t agree with the critics’ take that she does all this for her family. She’s resentful of the fact that she has to work while her sister stays home with an illegitimate child. She doesn’t want to turn her money over to her family.

In any event, she heads off to America with a bunch of cocaine in her stomach. She makes a superficial kind of friendship with one of the other women doing the run, and is upset and frightened when that woman dies from a ruptured cocaine pod in her stomach. Not so upset, though, that when she’s running from violent cocaine operatives, she doesn’t take shelter with the dead woman’s pregnant sister. I thought this was the most profoundly selfish moment in the whole movie. Ebert may be excited about the way this sour woman thinks on her feet, but all of her thoughts are about herself, and to Hell with anybody who gets in her way.

I could not get over the movie’s complete immorality. The movie’s point, and one with which the critics seem to agree completely, is that people who have dead end jobs should be admired when they break myriad laws and put others at risk. Maria’s spunky for refusing honest labor and marriage and, instead, opting for drug running and illegal immigration. Wow! What a heroine. Clearly, we need more sociopaths in America, which was the only thing I could figure out was the movie’s ultimate point.

The whole thing might have stopped there for me if I hadn’t, the next day, heard a laudatory review on NPR about the new Battlestar Galactica series. I caught the last five minutes of a “catch-up” show but, as I understand it, the plot is that humans have been taken over by a cyborg conquerer and are trying to overthrow the cyborgs. It’s a great premise for a show. What was fascinating was how the NPR interview framed it. To them, it’s fascinating because it makes us understand the insurgents in Iraq. It gives us their viewpoint. In other words, it makes the insurgents sympathetic.

Frankly, I have a hard time finding sympathetic people who are trying to restore a regime that murdered millions of its own people, that attracts people who enjoy beheading innocents, and that wants to impose a spectacularly grim religious rule that requires death sentences for eating ice cream, singing, playing tennis, or putting on a clown show for children. And that’s aside from the religion’s consistently demonstrated religious genocidal impulses, whether it’s against Christians (the Sudan), Jews (everywhere), the wrong kinds of Muslims (everywhere, especially the Sudan), etc.

In the simplistic liberal media world, however, just as all workers are exploited and should be praised for utterly immoral, illegal activity, so too are all underdogs virtuous. If you’re in charge, you’re bad; if you’re struggling to overthrow those in charge, you’re good. It doesn’t seem to occur to our media types to examine the motives of those involved in the struggle.

You can just imagine these liberal media types traveling through time, and putting their spin on 20th Century events. Using their paradigm, throughout the 1920s, in Munich, Hitler and his beleaguered brownshirts were involved in a valiant insurgency against their Munich overlords. Hitler even went to prison! In mid-20th Century China, the pathetic communists, led by the brave Mao fought against the unscrupulous Chinese overlords. In the early 1970s, Pol Pot and his brave troops were underdogs who desperately needed a break (which was provided in the vacuum created by the American troop withdrawal that turned their insurgency into a “successful” revolution).

In the world of intelligent people, of course, the point isn’t your underdog or overlord status. Instead, the focus should be on the nature of your cause. Whether in the underdog or overlord position, Hitler, Lenin/Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were all utterly evil. As noted, though, I can readily imagine today’s media, if it came upon these leaders in the underdog position, cheerfully rooting for them as brave agitators fighting against the status quo. Heck, I don’t even need to imagine that. That’s what the Western media actually did. For example, once you register, you can read here about how Mao’s underdog story was carefully framed for public consumption by a credulous, Left-leaning Western press. And I suspect every one of you knows how the press in the 1930s, especially the NY Times, turned a blind eye to the worst Soviet depredations against their own people.

So next time you read a movie or television review praising a show for having a spunky underdog, don’t assume that you’ll agree with the production’s moral universe (as I discovered when I watched Maria Full of Grace). Likewise, even if there’s nothing wrong with the show’s moral universe (because Galactica is apparently premised on small good against big evil), you may discover that the review itself tells you more about the reviewer than you really wanted to know.

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  • erp

    As in all things, take it from whence it comes. Glowing reviews by entities like those you mention are the first clue to avoid the film like the plague.

  • JJ

    I was unaware that “Maria” was supposed to be a big deal. My personal experience with it was that it was such crap I couldn’t sit through more than about 35 minutes of it before a book magically appeared between my eyes and the screen. I think it took about ten minutes more when I glanced down to the end of the couch and the other half of the audience was busy with her laptop – so for us it made relatively acceptable background noise. Certainly not compelling enough to actually command attention.

  • Sigmund

    This kind of relativism goes back at least 40 years. Think about “Bonnie and Clyde” when the “bad ole” FBI “massacres” those “paragons of virtue.”

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    If you’re in charge, you’re bad; if you’re struggling to overthrow those in charge, you’re good.

    Anything that is predictable, can also be used against them.

    I stopped watching Battlestar Galactica after about the first season, 12 episodes. Not because the plot wasn’t good, the plot was very exciting and unpredictable, and logical. And not because the characters were unrealistic and stereotypically stupid, no, I stopped watching cause it was so realistic that it took an emotional toll on me to watch the episodes. So like all good series, I’ll just wait until I can watch it all at once, that way I can skip through some stuff.

    It isn’t exactly fun, because I already deal with similar situations when looking at Iraq. It is a testament to the show’s realism and objective criteria on humanity, that it is so close to the actual that I’m affected on an emotional and psychological level. And the fact that the first season was a little too dark, not enough happy sappy endings for me. The other seasons might be better though, but that is just speculation.

    So next time you read a movie or television review praising a show for having a spunky underdog, don’t assume that you’ll agree with the production’s moral universe (as I discovered when I watched Maria Full of Grace).

    Just imagine all the good stuff you can do in the time freed from having to watch these movies, Bookworm ; )

    (because Galactica is apparently premised on small good against big evil)

    Small good with idiots (the XO) and with some really really, unmilitary people. The discipline is military, but the people don’t act military, meaning they don’t act like Marines, which to me is the model for what the military should act like.

    I think if we could have a bunch of US military personas in that situation, it would be a lot more fun and pleasing. Not to say, successful.

    It is almost as if these characters on BG have like a really, really, low wisdom. Higher than politicians, but still lower than what you see regularly from Iraq. In Iraq, it is the soldiers with the good stuff and the leaders with the bad. In BG, it is more or less inverted. You have good leaders trying to clean up the stuff. It is understandable because it is a show, so they want to have a lot of moral dilemmas and character conflicts with the many characters. Me, I’m just interested in things getting blow up and the fighters from Galactica, kicking arse. That is about it for me.

    Read more books, Bookworm!! Like JJ said.

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