February 22, 2013
United States (English)
Directed by Carl Franklin
Written by Carl Franklin (Based on the novel by Rudolfo Anaya)
Stunning moments are few and far between in "Bless Me, Ultima," but it builds into a valuable portrait by writer/director Carl Franklin, examining good and evil in the world as seen through the eyes of a child.
"Bless Me, Ultima" is the long-awaited (over 40 years now) adaptation of the novel by Rudolfo Anaya. The story centers upon Antonio, a young boy in post-WWII New Mexico and the curandero (Native American healer) Ultima who comes to stay with his family. Luke Ganalon and Miriam Colon are wonderfully cast in each role. Their scenes together are the highlights of the story and this remains faithful on the screen. The film is an illuminating look into the Chicano culture of this time and place. Seasons and harvests come and go as Antonio develops a relationship and apprenticeship under Ultima.
Ultima has plentiful lessons for the curious child (the world is her classroom): from the sacredness of all living things to how she can expel a curse from a suffering soul. Some villagers accuse Ultima of witchcraft and her life is threatened more than once. To balance perspective in these precious years Antionio begins elementary school and prepares for his first Communion in the Catholic church. His interactions with his peers bring further questions to his mind and some entertainment to the audience. We often laugh at the ways of youth, but these are the roots we all stem from and some of life's most honest inquiries come from. It's difficult to work with child actors, especially when they're brought together and solely responsible for a moving a scene forward. The film suffers in these instances, not everything can be like "The Tree of Life" in this regard.
For my money "Bless Me, Ultima" is an early equivalent for the "Life of Pi" of this year. It's not the best comparison, but I use it nonetheless as that film is still fresh in our collective mind. Both serve as remarkable coming of age and spiritual awakening accounts for their young protagonists, though this time instead of an Indian on a lifeboat with a tiger you've got a chicano in the desert with an owl (speaking of which, this marks the first time I've seen "owl wranglers" in a film's credits). It's difficult to go back and see things the way a child does, but I'm thankful for films that provide us this proxy.
"In the name of all that's good and strong and beautiful, I bless you."
CONTENT: some bloody violence, brief language, sexual references and disturbing images