A deeply satisfying feat of storytelling, “Bless Me, Ultima” makes a difficult task look easy. It combines innocence and experience, the darkness and wonder of life, in a way that is not easy to categorize but a rich pleasure to watch.
Taken from Rudolfo Anaya’s landmark book, perhaps the bestselling Chicano novel of all time, “Bless Me, Ultima” presented certain obstacles. Though its protagonist is a very young boy, what he observes of life is not exclusively kindhearted. The story has the honesty of emotion you’d associate with having a 6-year-old as protagonist, but likely material for a Disney film this is not.
More than that, “Bless Me, Ultima,” set in the New Mexico of 1944, posits an age of wonders and miracles where magic realism informs young Antonio Marez’s sense of how strange and unfathomable the world can seem. This story believes in powers beyond the rational (which has at times gotten the book into trouble with local school boards) and insists that we believe as well.
Writer-director Carl Franklin is ideally suited to bring this story to the screen. His early features “One False Move” and the Denzel Washington-starring “Devil in a Blue Dress” were both crime dramas rich with the potential for violence, but his next, the Meryl Streep / Renée Zellweger “One True Thing,” was grounded in a potent mother-daughter relationship.
Franklin’s sensibility allows for everything that happens to Antonio (Luke Ganalon) to be given its proper weight. The emotional material is never permitted to turn saccharine, and the bad things that happen, like a shooting Antonio’s father, Gabriel (Benito Martinez), is involved in early in the film, are treated dispassionately, as if they were part of life, which is the whole point.
For the first words we hear, spoken in voice-over by the adult Antonio, is “Why is there evil in the world?” It’s a question that forces itself to the front of Antonio’s mind the summer before his 7th birthday when Ultima comes to live with him, his two sisters and his parents.
Magisterially played by Miriam Colon, Ultima may be a tiny and ancient person, not much bigger than Antonio, but she is a woman of enormous power. Labeled a bruja, or witch, by some fearful people in their small town, Ultima considers herself to be a curandera, a woman whose knowledge of medicinal herbs and ancient remedies could cure sicknesses modern medicine was powerless against. She also has a special relationship with a watchful owl, who seems to function as her spiritual guardian.
Ultima and young Antonio take a shine to each other, and soon she is taking him out in the countryside (gorgeously photographed by Paula Huidobro) to learn care and respect for the earth and its offerings. “Good,” she tells him, “is always stronger than evil. The smallest piece of good can stand against all the evil in the world.”
This is not just feel-good philosophy. It soon takes on a frightening real-world significance when Antonio’s uncle Lucas, having stumbled on the three Trementina sisters practicing Satanic rituals, is cursed by them and near death. The doctors in Santa Fe have given up on Lucas, so has the priest, and Ultima is called in as a last resort to save his life. It is not a job she takes on lightly.
“When one tampers with the fate of a man,” she tells Lucas’ family, and Antonio, who is called to help with the exorcism, “a chain of events is set in motion which no one can control.”
In truth, Ultima’s action puts her in conflict with the sisters’ father, the frightening Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), an angry, vindictive man who is, Ultima says to his face, “as ugly as the devil will allow.” The bad blood between them will leave no one in this story untouched, especially not Antonio.
But as the young boy tries to figure out the place of evil in the world, Ultima is not the only force he encounters. His caring mother, Maria (Dolores Heredia), is a devout Catholic, and Antonio encounters the stern strictures of that belief system as well and tries to balance it against what Ultima has taught him.
Antonio has in his veins the blood of his parents’ very different families. His mother’s people are Lunas, farmers in love with the land for generations, while his father is one of the Marez, wanderers and vaqueros, or cowboys. Deciding who he will be, everyone understands, and what he will believe, is Antonio’s great task in life.
What’s most impressive about “Bless Me, Ultima” is that it can seem both dark and light depending on which aspects you focus on. It presents the unnerving world of adults that powerfully affects Antonio, as well as the small moments of a warmly remembered childhood, things like playmates, disputes and the first day of school. Its story simply unfolds, and we want nothing more than to go where it takes us.
‘Bless Me, Ultima’
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some violence and sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: In general release