Since its publication, Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima has been embraced as one of the most seminal Chicano novels ever released. It, along with Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, is a coming-of-age novel but it doesn’t examine impoverished Latino life, but rather explores the childhood innocence where tradition begets modernization. In a sense, Bless Me Ultima is similar to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; both stories combine childhood innocence and experiences with the darkness and wonder of life.
Set in Guadalupe, New Mexico a year before the end of the Second World War, it’s easy to assume the story being told is much older. Were it not for the appearance of a few pick-up trucks and landmark buildings (a modern schoolhouse, for instance), Ultima could very well be set in the 1800s.
Young Antonio Márez (Luke Ganalon) is our protagonist, but he tells his story from the memories of his adult self. At the film’s onset, and spoken in voice-over, adult Antonio asks, “Why is there evil in the world?” It is a question to ponder and one that will come to fruition during a conversation between young Antonio and his father, Gabriel (Benito Martinez).
A six-year-old boy and rational child, Antonio’s spiritual beliefs are conflicted as the result of challenges around him. As the Chicano way of life was changing due to the cultural and societal changes in the American Southwest at the end of World War II, Antonio has trouble when it comes to discerning good from evil, myth from fact, and is conflicted by his own destiny. To help him learn about life is Ultima (Miriam Colon), an elderly curandera (a woman whose knowledge of medicinal herbs and ancient remedies cure sicknesses that modern medicine cannot), who comes to live with the Márez family. While respected by Tony’s parents, some of the Guadalupe community has labeled her as a bruja (witch), fearful of her ways. Ultima, known in the Márez household as “La Grande,” has a special relationship with young Tony on account that she was the midwife at his birth. Over the course of the story she teaches Tony through example, experience and critical reflection, the universal principles that explain and sustain life.
With Ultima staying with the Márez family a chain of events come to fruition when she exorcises a demonic spirit from Tony’s uncle, Lucas Luna, which came as a result of being cursed by three sisters performing black magic. Ultima is put in conflict with the sisters’ father, Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), when one of his daughters dies unexpectedly when the curse is lifted. Hot-tempered and seeking vengeance, Tenorio becomes the proverbial thorn in the side of the Márez household as he plots to kill Ultima in some form or fashion.
Aside from what Ultima has taught him, Antonio weighs it against what he has learned from his Catholic upbringing at the urging of his mother, Maria (Dolores Heredia). The young boy encounters the stern structure of the Catholic faith daily at the school he attends. It is there where he is friends with a boy who doesn’t believe in God, and feels no need to confess any sins or transgressions. This dissent in the belief of a “higher power” is profound in the sense that children can be incorrigible to believe what others tell them, and take everything at face value.
Outside the spiritual realm, Antonio’s lifeblood is conflicted. His mother’s family (the Lunas) has been farmers for generations; his father (the Marez) side is vaqueros (cowboys), and they have shown a willingness to venture away from family to find their own way. This is proven when Tony’s older brothers come back home after the war only to have disillusionment encourage them to seek better work in places like Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Most of the features written and/or directed by Carl Franklin have fallen into the crime and thriller genre. One of the few exceptions is the emotional weepie, mother-daughter relationship tale One True Thing, starring Meryl Streep and Renée Zellwegger. Franklin brings the same sensibility he brought to OTT with his adaptation of Anaya’s novel. In the wrong filmmaker’s hands the story could have been easily exploited. Instead, Franklin doesn’t dwell too much on the unexplainable. He’s cognizant to realize that the audience doesn’t need an overly dramatized exorcism to illicit a response. What resounds greater are the questions that arise in the aftermath.
Bless Me, Ultima is a coming-of-age tale involving a young boy, but its PG-13 may give parents reservations to taking their little one or children to see it. There are scary images like the exorcism described above, as well as deaths resulting from shootings and drowning, so mothers and fathers might want to pay heed.
Bless Me, Ultima isn’t without its warm moments. The tomfoolery that happens in the schoolyard is present, as is the moment where young Antonio finally gets the better of a kid who always passes him on the bridge as he runs across. The reason is very innocuous and is in and of itself its own coming-of-age moment.
Those that pass on seeing the latest mainstream offerings in favor of a small film like this will get a profoundly affecting piece of storytelling with strong performances by newcomer Luke Ganalon and Miriam Colon, some of whom will remember as Tony Montana’s mother in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. With beautiful photography by Paula Huidobro and at-ease direction by Carl Franklin, Bless Me, Ultima is rich in its depiction of Chicano life and not to be overlooked.
Director: Carl Franklin
Writer: Carl Franklin, based on the novel by Rudolfo Anaya
Notable Cast: Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez, Dolores Heredia, Castulo Guerra