Bless Me, Ultima: Film Review

An offbeat slice of Americana will intrigue thoughtful moviegoers.

Funded by the heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, this period piece based on the best-selling Hispanic novel follows a medicine woman with healing powers.

Spirituality has been making something of a comeback in recent movies, as evidenced by the enormous worldwide success of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.  A keen interest in religious and spiritual questions was one of the things that accounted for the popularity of Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, Bless Me, Ultima, though the book was not without its controversial elements. Some conservative Christian groups tried to have the book banned because of its interest in witchcraft and superstition. Carl Franklin’s uneven but affecting film version of the novel has already proved successful in regional openings in the Southwest, and Arenas Entertainment is opening the film more widely in an effort to reach out to underserved Hispanic audiences. The undertaking is risky, with box office response uncertain, but the film will reward adventurous viewers.

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This material would never have attracted a major studio, so Christy Walton—heir to the Wal-Mart fortune—financed the picture herself, not because of any desire to become a movie mogul but simply because of her passion for the novel. She allowed the filmmakers to work without major stars or obvious commercial hooks added to the story. Although the film doesn’t always sustain dramatic impact, its fidelity to the spirit of the novel is impressive.

The story takes place in New Mexico in the 1940s and is told from the point of view of Antonio Marez (newcomer Luke Ganalon). His three older brothers are fighting in the Second World War, and the family is struggling, but when a medicine woman named Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to stay with the family, she initiates turmoil within this tight-knit community. Ultima has healing powers, but she also arouses deep suspicion from some villagers who consider her to be a witch. She and Antonio share a deep bond that only intensifies when Ultima is targeted by know-nothing forces in their town.

Viewers might see some parallels to another coming-of-age story set in a small town, To Kill a Mockingbird. The villain of the piece is reminiscent of the Southern bigot who threatened the children in Mockingbird, and Ultima could be seen as a more ambiguous female version of the wise Atticus Finch. These parallels indicate the primal appeal of this story of a child trying to sort out positive from negative influences in a sometimes benighted community. It may be that Anaya lacks Harper Lee’s storytelling flair, or it could be that Franklin’s adaptation fails to hit all the necessary dramatic beats. The film is more a collection of vignettes than a narrative with forward momentum, and this means there are stretches that lag. The script also relies too heavily on voice-over narration by the older Antonio (Alfred Molina).

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Fortunately, the period is beautifully evoked by Franklin, cinematographer Paula Huidobro, and designer David Bomba. Franklin has not made many feature films in recent years, but the best moments here remind us of his sensitivity toward isolated and misunderstood people. There’s a lyrical feeling to many of the scenes, and the spiritual curiosity of the young protagonist never seems forced. Although the film is meant to appeal to family audiences, it doesn’t shy away from showing the harsher elements of life in this impoverished town.

Ganalon shines in his first major role, and the scenes with his young classmates have considerable charm. Colon, who has appeared in many different movies for five decades, brings soulful stature to her portrayal of a tough and mysterious woman destined to be misunderstood. The actress performs with astringent force and not the slightest hint of sentimentality. Castulo Guerra as the antagonist is appropriately menacing. This film doesn’t always unfold gracefully, but it builds to a poignant conclusion, and it evokes a vanished way of life with tenderness and restraint. 

Opens:  Friday, Feb. 22 (Arenas Entertainment).

Cast:  Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Dolores Heredia, Benito Martinez, Joaquin Cosio, Castulo Guerra.

Director-screenwriter:  Carl Franklin

Based on the novel by:  Rudolfo Anaya.

Producers:  Mark Johnson, Sarah DiLeo, Jesse B’Franklin.

Executive producers:  Christy Walton, Kevin Reidy.

Director of photography:  Paula Huidobro.

Production designer:  David Bomba.

Music:  Mark Kilian.

Costume designer:  Donna Zakowska.

Editors:  Alan Heim, Toby Yates.

PG rating, 102 minutes.