“Bless Me, Ultima,” the book, is a widely read and critically acclaimed piece of Chicano literature that also has been quite divisive since its publication in 1972. Some critics and parents have decried Rudolfo Anaya’s novel as anti-Catholic or too profane and pushed to have it banned from school districts across the country.
“Bless Me, Ultima,” the movie, is a mostly gentle and tastefully photographed depiction of a young boy’s coming of age in rural 1940s New Mexico. His maturation includes a questioning of the Catholic faith of his parents and a curiosity about the Native American mysticism of his elders. But such musings feel more like an inherent part of the progression into adolescence, a fine-tuning of identity, rather than an intentionally subversive force.
Besides, Luke Ganalon, who plays the boy at the center of the story, couldn’t be a more adorably precocious and optimistic little scamp. What sort of damage could he possibly do?
Writer-director Carl Franklin presents the journey of Ganalon’s character, the wide-eyed Antonio Marez, in ways that are restrained and sometimes even stiff, despite the magic and violence that co-exist alongside each other. Some of the small-town “types” come off as a bit cartoonish: the eyepatch-wearing villain, the slurring and staggering drunk, But there is an earnestness and genuine sense of affection here that are appealing.
At the film’s start, an elderly curandera, or folk healer, has come to live out her final days with Antonio’s family in their modest home. Ultima (the formidable Miriam Colon) emerges from a car gingerly but her inner strength is clear, as is her connection with Antonio; as a midwife, she brought him into the world. His former vaquero father (Benito Martinez from “The Shield”) and devout mother (Dolores Heredia) are duly respectful of her wisdom and power, while Antonio and his older sisters are a bit awed. (The three elder sons are off fighting in World War II.)
Whispers in town that Ultima is a bruja, or witch, add to her mystery, as does the way she seeks revenge for a curse that’s placed on a family member. But her inner kindness becomes more obvious to Antonio as she walks the land with him, teaches him about the usefulness of various plants and offers advice on the importance of spirituality. In case that dialogue alone didn’t sufficiently spell out the film’s themes, pervasive voiceover from Alfred Molina as the adult Antonio – beginning with the rhetorical question, “Why is there evil in this world?” – often hammers us over the head. The inclusion of such prose is a nod to the film’s literary origins but probably worked better on the page.
Other moments are more subtle, though, as in the wordless ostracizing Antonio experiences on his first day of school as a poor and illiterate but eager farm kid. One of the first friends he makes is already a young atheist who speaks matter-of-factly about the tragedies that made him doubt his faith at such an early age; he does, however, attend catechism classes each week – if only to hang out with his buddies.
Amen to that.
“Bless Me, Ultima,” an Arenas Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual references. Running time: 100 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.