Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” has always been a bit of an odd duck. A staple on plenty of grade school reading lists across the country and considered by many to be a classic upon its publication in 1972, it’s been banned in places for its casual profanity, violence and interpretations of its handling of religion. In fact, it was the magical realism of Anaya’s prose mixed with the reality of growing up in the barely integrated New Mexico of the 1940s that made the coming-of-age story more palatable to youth more intrigued by fantasy and grounded enough to please those that weren’t, a worthy entry into the tradition of Chicano folktales.
That daunting mix is likely why it’s taken over 40 years for the novel to receive a proper adaptation, but writer/director Carl Franklin generally gets it right with the story of Antonio Marez (Luke Ganalon), a young boy who doesn’t know what to believe when a medicine woman named Ultima (Miriam Colon) arrives on his family’s doorstep, accepting of the fact she’s nearing the end of her life. Cloaked in black, she is thought to be a witch by some in the community for her ability to conjure homespun remedies, but to Antonio, the youngest of her grandchildren, she is a spiritual guide as he begins to form his own beliefs apart from the Catholic tradition in which he was raised and contends with forces that necessitate him to grow up quickly after he witnesses a murder and gets caught up in a turf war between Ultima and Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), a man who believes she’s killed one of his daughters.
Antonio’s ultimate fate is never much in doubt since the action in “Bless Me, Ultima” is punctuated by the calm narration of the character as an adult (voiced by Fernando Aldaz), but the film holds interest throughout for its respectful treatment of the boy’s genuine curiosity about finding a faith that’s right for him, carried out with a performance just right from the young Ganalon. While there are moments when the film feels rushed, the inclusion of Antonio’s classmate Florence (Diego Miro), whose parents have died and can’t accept the idea of any higher power, is particularly affecting and it’s clear Franklin has a strong sense for both the film’s religious implications and the world in which the story takes place in, amidst the immigrant Chicano culture in the Southwest at the end of World War II.
Although Anaya always intended for the story to be a battle between good and evil, made clear once again as the adult Antonio ponders upfront in the film, ” Why is there evil in the world?” “Bless Me Ultima” is less impressive when it comes to the showdown between Tenorio and Ultima, which often feels wedged into the narrative rather than as its driving force. Mark Kilian’s score can be counted on to climb octaves every time Tenorio appears onscreen and though the overemphasis of a villain may be a concession to younger audiences, the fact that Antonio rarely seems affected by the very real threats Tenorio makes against him and his family is troubling for all the wrong reasons.
Still, “Bless Me, Ultima” is more of a comfort than anything else, handsomely appointed and shot and capable of the warm and fuzzies that such childhood stories can elicit, though Franklin is careful not to let it drift too far towards nostalgia. No doubt there will be future generations who will turn to the film for “help” with their book report, but will be surprised to discover themselves enjoying it.