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Colombia sees first Oscar nomination

Actress was once too timid to answer the phone
/ Source: Reuters

This year’s Oscar nominations are making a bit of Latin American history thanks to a novice actress from Colombia who studied acting to overcome a colossal case of shyness.

Catalina Sandino Moreno, who says she was once too timid to answer the phone, was nominated Tuesday for a best actress Oscar alongside the likes of Hilary Swank and Kate Winslet for her performance as the drug mule in the powerful American-Colombian film “Maria Full of Grace.”

It was the first movie from this divided and violent Andean country to be nominated for a coveted Oscar and it was Sandino’s first movie as well.

She was nominated for her portrayal of a hapless drug courier -- a not uncommon predicament in a nation that is the world’s biggest producer of cocaine but which has never before been detailed on the big screen.

The movie tracks 17-year-old Maria Alvarez, played by Sandino, 23, from her home town in the outskirts of Bogota, where she glumly strips thorns from rose stems in a flower plant, to the Colombian enclave of Jackson Heights, New York.

Pregnant by a boy who does not love her and staring at a dead-end future, she is persuaded to work for a local drug smuggler who promises $5,000 if she risks her life by swallowing 62 baby carrot-sized capsules of heroin and flying to the United States.

The sight of her methodically dipping each capsule in olive oil, swallowing and massaging her stomach to help them settle is hard to watch, especially knowing this is a regular ritual for Colombians struggling in this country’s debilitated economy.

Sandino has now moved to New York where she is reading lots of scripts for what will be only her second movie.

“It feels really good that I am going to be representing my country,” she told Reuters by telephone.

Drug mules a part of national realityShe told local media in Colombia that she only got into acting to overcome the shyness.

“When I was a little girl I was very timid, and my parents told I should do something to bring me out of my shell and wake me up,” she said. “So I got into theater.”

She said she came close to quitting the craft after failing to get a job in Colombia’s soap opera-dominated film and television industry.

“Maria Full of Grace” cost $3.2 million to make and has fetched $6.7 million at the U.S. box office alone. It did a modest $450,000 in Colombia.

“For us the subject of drug mules is a common part of our national reality,” Jaime Monsalve, an editor of Cambio magazine in Bogota, said of the lukewarm Colombian response.

“In other countries, such as the United States, the theme of the movie was more surprising and captured more attention.”

Colombia, which is also a major exporter of heroin, is embroiled in a 40-year guerrilla war that pits left wing rebels against far-right paramilitaries, both of which are linked to the drug trade.

“The problem in Colombia was that we released the film at the same time that ’The Passion of the Christ’ was released here,” said Rodrigo Guerrero, associate producer on the film. ”To go up against ’Christ’ in a Catholic country like Colombia during Easter week was challenging, to say the least.”

A new release of “Maria Full of Grace” is planned for later this week.