Bless Me, Ultima (Arenas Entertainment, PG-13)

film bless-me-ultima_smWhile this is a very well-meaning film and will appeal to certain audiences, others may find this film slow and often predictable.

 

film bless-me-ultima 

Bless Me, Ultima is a sincere little low-budget film that provides a peek inside rural New Mexican Hispanic culture in the 1940s. It highlights a unique mix of Catholic religious beliefs and Native American traditions through the eyes of a young boy (Luke Ganalon) and his relationship with his spiritual healer grandmother, Ultima (Miriam Colon). When the grandmother comes to live with the boy’s family, she introduces young Antonio to new way of seeing the world, but also sets in motion a conflict in their small community.

The story has elements of Carlos Castaneda’s magical world but through the viewpoint of a spiritually inclined boy, the youngest son of a proud but small farmer. The film is directed by Carl Franklin, whose previous works include Devil in a Blue Dress and One False Move, and is adapted from a novel by Rudolfo Anaya, who co-wrote the script. The book has a devoted following in Latino and some faith communities, although it is controversial in others, and this adaptation should please most fans.

While Bless Me, Ultima is a very well-meaning film and will appeal to certain audiences, others may find this film slow and often predictable. The director’s portrait of this dusty, remote desert world is both affectionate and realistic, at times even imbued with a kind of natural-world magic. However, the acting is generally stiff and the characters seem two-dimensional. The narrative is often overburdened with symbolism, and the story tends follows a too conventional approach to its material.

The subject matter may offer unexplored potential, but the film’s structure follows a familiar family film, good-versus-evil format. Focusing on the spiritual and moral choices of their lives, Bless Me, Ultima describes the blending of beliefs in this culture, in which traditional healers are both part of and apart from their Catholic religion.

Dolores Heredia plays the boy’s practical mother, who envisions her youngest son growing up as a scholar or a priest, while his kindly, fun-loving father (Benito Martinez) wants him to continue the farming tradition. Tony’s older brothers are away fighting in the war, and return changed by that experience.

Young Tony, as his friends at school call him, is just starting to wonder about the world around him, touching on issues like alcoholism, prostitution, moral rigidity and forgiveness. The film opens with an act of violence with moral overtones, as the boy comes upon a desperate man hiding under a bridge, pursued by a local posse who want him for murder. The arrival of the grandmother sparks a division in the community, when she confronts local leader Tenorio (Castulo Guerra) and charges of witchcraft fly in both directions. The set-up sounds dramatic, but how this is all done is often heavy-handed and too focused on ensuring the moral message gets through. The 1940s setting puts the family at a time of cultural transition but the film sometimes feels like a documentary forced into a dramatic form.

That said, there is an audience for Bless Me, Ultima. It should appeal to fans of the book and spiritual-minded filmgoers. The film is warm and respectful of the culture, if rather stiff and formulaic; the photography is nice; and the little boy is appealing. It offers insight into New Mexico culture but not a great deal of entertainment value for a more general audience. In English and Spanish with subtitles, the film nonetheless offers a warm-hearted view of a loving family facing difficult times. | Cate Marquis

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