Antonio is a 6 year old boy who forms a special relationship with an enigmatic woman who comes to live with his family. Her name is Ultima and she’s a curandera, which is a traditional folk healer with ties to the supernatural realm. Labeled as a witch by some, she becomes a mentor of sorts to the young Antonio who gives him a new perspective while living in the highly volatile environment of his village.
There’s a lot to recommend in Bless Me Ultima. The cinematography is beautiful and some of the vignettes are charming. When the school kids stare at little Antonio for bringing a burrito to lunch instead of a sandwich, you can empathize with his insecurity. Director Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) nicely captures period detail in this document of Chicano culture of rural New Mexico in the early ’40s. The drama does a nice job at explaining why the child is torn by conflicting ideologies. Ultima is shunned by the townspeople as a witch, yet whenever someone is sick, they appeal to her for help. His father wants him to ride the open plains but his mother wishes him to be a priest. Strangely, despite all this, his crisis of faith doesn’t quite captivate the emotions as it should.
Bless me Ultima is based on Rudolfo Anaya’s widely read and critically acclaimed 1972 novel. A major work of Mexican-American literature in classrooms, it has been contested at times due to its adult language and sympathetic view of the occult. Although the themes of religion vs. mysticism are addressed, the conflict doesn’t really resonate. Actress Miriam Colon is appropriately mysterious and benevolent as Ultima but young actor Luke Ganalon is vague as a character. Given to blank stares as events happen, he fails to truly engage as our lead protagonist. His spiritual development is key to the narrative, but his odyssey seems kind of perfunctory. I suspect the story will probably resound more with people who have read the source text and can fill in the book’s deeper handling of Antonio’s cultural and ideological struggle. This coming-of-age tale is pleasant enough, but it could’ve been so much more.