BLESS ME , ULTIMA
I have been a fan of director Carl Franklin since his 2008 film One True Thing that grounded a young Renee Zellweger and earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination. Franklin went on to direct suspense thrillers like High Crimes and Out of Time before disappearing into television. He has returned to features with a film that stands apart from anything I have seen so far this year (which honestly isn’t boasting that much, its only February). Bless Me, Ultima has a terrible title and an even worse poster (just a close up of an owl, which makes it look like a nature film.
Five-year-old Antonio (Luke Ganalon) remembers the day when his grandmother Ultima (Miriam Colon), who some call a bruja (witch), came to live with him. “I have come to live out my last days,” she explains to the young, curious boy who promised to stand by her side. The most innocent soul in the family and on the school yard, Antonio seemed destined for priesthood despite the controversy that surrounded his family due to his grandmother’s special healing powers. Ultima and a local townsman get into quite a confrontation that has the entire small town up in arms, demanding the medicine woman be turned over.
Set in New Mexico during WWII, Bless Me, Ultima is the type of film that you leave the theater understanding more about culture and history than you did when you entered. Borrowing a word from a fellow critic, “folksy” certainly describes the demeanor and attitude of the storytelling. Colon (All the Pretty Horses) is really fun to watch in this role, from her delicate but fierce expressions to the gentle sympathy this young actor displays. It’s a film about religion, faith, spirit and family and always has some dramatic moment or character thrusting the story forward.
Narrated by Alfred Molina, Bless Me, Ultima tackles faith and the belief in God in a way I haven’t quite seen done before. There are really delicate issues at play in the film, all involving children that are really powerful and important. Much like his previous dramas, Franklin takes a very delicate approach to a very important and touchy subject matter. Ultimately, the film plays more like a weakly constructed Latin soap opera spoken in English, but the subject matter and the fable story telling qualities elevate it to a more important level.
Final Thought - As a critic, it's so rare that I see a film that is unique enough that I can’t compare it to anything else.
By: Dustin Chase
Dr. Donna Copeland’s
Bless Me, Ultima is a folk tale intended to convey ancient wisdom and pose existential questions about life, belief, good, evil, and so on. Narrated by a man about his coming of age in New Mexico among Latinos in the 1940’s, we see him as a boy, Antonio (Rudolfo Anaya), trying to make sense of a world peppered with colliding ideals: witchery vs. spirituality, religion vs. atheism, security vs. adventure, pastoral vs. urban life, rationality vs. impulsivity. It is a violent culture, with posses set on revenge, fistfights, and even an evil man who tries to kill the boy.
But Antonio is a thoughtful, calm child, and apparently has a special connection with the old curandera, who has taken him under her wing and instructs him on the healing arts and being at one with the earth and nature. Every chance he gets, Antonio asks her, his parents, his uncles, or whomever he is with difficult questions for them to answer. Why does God allow evil to exist? Why does he not protect the innocent? If he were a woman would he be more forgiving? Of course, the younger adults are often stumped, but with his persistence, his father is able to enlighten him about how to think of evil—something along the lines of understanding being the key, with recognition that we don’t always know the whole story about people or situations.
As he matures, ponders, and questions, Antonio comes to realize that he can draw from all his experiences and teachings, and ultimately, establish his own moral compass. In that vein, I liked the way the film does not take any particular position about faith and belief.
Filmed mostly in New Mexico, there are beautiful shots of the landscape with mountains, streams, and blue skies with white puffy clouds characteristic of that part of the country. Some of the dialog sounds a bit “made up” (i.e., not natural), but mostly it is a very interesting story with fine actors.