Catalina Sandino Moreno received an Oscar nomination for her debut performance as Maria Alvaret, a pregnant teenager who becomes a drug mule to provide for her family. Her nomination might have come as a surprise but I think it was a richly deserved one. Naturally, she didn't have much chance of winning, but they must have really liked her as she did receive the nomination after all. In her case, the nomination really was the reward and I guess it was more than anyone in her case would have dreamed of. I mean a first-timer Colombian actress rarely receives Best Actress nomination. Catalina's and Kate's nod prove that the Academy members were at the top of their game (in terms of the Best Actress nominations, not the actual horrible other nominees and winners).
Maria Full of Grace is a very interesting and raw movie, which had real emotional depth and something to say. Its atmosphere is somewhat similar to Central Station (though the two movies are quite different). I think I might even give it a Best Picture nomination (it's most certainly better than 80% of the Best Picture nominees). The directing is excellently done, you never feel that the movie is boring or that it has useless parts. The casting is so great and I particularly appreciated that they found very realistic characters.
It's a very dangerous thing to be nominated for your screen debut. You either get more and better roles or you ruin your whole career simply by trying to live up to the hype of your celebrated introduction. Sometimes, it really works out (just see Goldie Hawn or Barbra Streisand), but sometimes the actor disappered in a blink or have to work in second-rate tv series (Marlee Matlin or Timothy Hutton). Although her nomination came almost seven years ago, I still don't know which group Catalina belongs to. The energy of her work carried her to the Kodak Theater and yet I feel that she doesn't get good enough projects for her talent.
That being said, I'm about to assess Catalina's performance as Maria Alvarez, the desperate young girl, who becomes a drug mule. Just yesterday, I was raving about Imelda Staunton's heart-breaking realism as Vera Drake, a woman who does illegal things out of pure kindness and care. Maria, however, is in need of some money and she's just desperate to get a job. Both characters commit crimes, both are aware of the possible consequences and yet they do what they feel is right for them.
Catalina doesn't have the same amount of emotional scenes that Imelda gets as Vera Drake, she doesn't get caught (well, almost), she doesn't have breakdowns, courtroom scenes and yet there's something wonderfully wrenching about her work. From the beginning, I felt a kind of connection to her character and I really cared about her. She made Maria a fairly likeable person, someone who's very easy to sympathize with. I instantly developed a connection to her and wanted things to work out for her. It's very heart-breaking to see her very poor surroundings. Maria is used to doing some hard work and she's not afraid of talking back and stand up for herself. Although these scenes are excellently played by Catalina, I'd say they are the least memorable ones of all. Her bit rebellious teenager attitude is not the most interesting aspect of Maria.
Once Maria becomes a drug mule, the tone of Catalina's whole performance changes. It becomes extremely fierce and brutally raw, especially when she's practising how to swallow the pellets. There's something deeply heart-breaking about those moments. The scene where her plane to New York takes off and she holding on to her cross is just unbelievably great. Religion is a comfort for the character of Maria and somehow she develops a strange resemblance with the Virgin Mary. Both of them are teenagers (yes, the Virgin Mary was also a teenager, despite what you see in 50s Hollywood epics :P) who have to make sacrifices and accept what they have to do. The religious symbolism of this movie and Catalina's performance is just wonderfully solved and far from being forced or obvious.
The way Catalina develops Maria is also quite remarkable and especially from a first-timer. I felt lots of confidence in Catalina and she wonderfully showed the steps of Maria's growing up. She starts out as a desperate teenager and in the end, she turns out to be a grown, more responsible woman. There's only one louder scene involving her and she nailed that one, too. She never went too over-the-top and she made me realise one thing as she was crying: this girl is seventeen years old and is forced to do thing that not even adults should do. It's a deeply harrowing scene which has its effect mostly by how sudden and unexpected it really is.
So after all, I'm saying that I was once again impressed by Catalina's screen debut as Maria. She played this character with lots of dedication and confidence, while avoiding the obvious traps. She never becomes 'obvious' in her acting, totally identifies with her character and develops her wonderfully. I can only praise her for her incredible, extremely heart-breaking performance.