Bless Me, Ultima showcases the power of faith, the mystery of magic and the uplifting nature of your standard coming of age yarn. Combining the first two elements packs the power to offend, but writer/director Carl Franklin avoids rubbing Catholics the wrong way with his gauzy tone and sweet-faced lead actor.
The film, based upon the 1972 novel by Rudolfo Anaya, follows an inquisitive lad who blossoms under the intense but loving protection of a local elder. The story asks simple questions about not just faith but assimilation and the transfer from old-world customs to the modern world.
Franklin (Devil in the Blue Dress) embraces the mysticism and wonder of the source material, but he clings to some flimsy character portraits and paint by numbers dialogue that turn debates on good vs. evil into rote recitations.
Young Antonio (Luke Ganalon) lives with his extended family in 1940s-era New Mexico. He’s very close to a local healer named Ultima (Miriam Colon). Her powers extend far beyond taking care of a confused young child like Antonio, and while the boy’s family has a strong belief in God, Ultima relies on less spiritual means to make things bend to her whims.
Bless Me, Ultima’s story meanders from there, much like many films based on beloved novels. We get to know a vengeful man who believes Ultima is a witch and should be destroyed, watch Antonio struggle as he starts school and see his family cope with the temporary loss of key family members serving in World War II.
Ganalon and Colon maintain our interest, anchoring a film which could easily succumb to so many story threads. Colon’s character is, by far, the most intriguing, pushing past stereotypes to leave us with an indelible soul to study. Antonio questions everything around him, including his faith and the nature of evil. What emerges is a consideration of not just Catholicism but ways to incorporate outside influences into one’s spiritual worldview.
The screenplay makes us consider the bigger themes at play in post-war America as well as a country grappling with the need to bring disparate cultures into the mainstream. Antonio’s family clings to versions of the American Dream, but regional disagreements and personal demons sometimes get in the way.
Bless Me, Ultima brims with faith and fantasy, but its reverential tone allow both perspectives to share the screen without overtly offending its audience.