Film Review – Bless Me, Ultima
Whether or not a movie is well made, one necessary factor is that it be memorable. Either in a good way or a bad way, if a film can stick in a person’s mind for a time after they have seen it, then in that way it has succeeded. This crucial element is unfortunately missing in Carl Franklin’s Bless Me, Ultima. Based on the novel by Rudolfo Anaya, and adapted for the screen by Franklin, this is a very bland take on the relationship between good and evil, and the separation between the physical and spiritual worlds. There are many ideas that are incorporated here, but they are only skimmed on the surface. We never get a true sense of the characters, or how their perspectives are shaped through their life experiences. It wants to be something grand, but its ambition far exceeds its reach.
Antonio (Luke Ganalon) is a young boy growing up in a small village in New Mexico during WWII. His family lives a simple life, until the day Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to live with them. Ultima is a medicine woman, who practices rituals unlike those Antonio has come to know from the Catholic Church. Ultima (who has aided Antonio’s family once before) has come to live her remaining years peacefully with them. This new addition has sparked Antonio’s curiosity, and often times we see him glancing around corners, seeing the strange things Ultima does. While this repels some of the other villagers, Antonio channels Ultima as a new source of knowledge. Ultima’s practices seem to work, even healing some of the sick. If this peaceful, elderly woman only uses her skills for good, then why do some people turn away from her in disgust?
Others don’t take kindly to Ultima, even saying that what she does is blasphemous to the Church. Fellow villager Tenorio (Castulo Guerra) accuses her of witchcraft when some of his family members mysteriously fall ill. This ignites intense panic around the community, with some villagers taking arms and torches to Antonio’s home and demanding his father Gabriel (Benito Martinez) hand her over. This particular scene comes about strangely. If this was set further in the past, when medicine and technology were in its infancy, I could find it more believable. But this is the 1940s, when the industrial age was in full swing. A mere twenty years later would come the swingin’ ’60s. Who in their right mind would believe in witchcraft during this time period? This world seems to belong to a far older generation.
It’s tough to see Ultima as more than just an allegory for human prejudice. It’s true that people fear what they don’t understand, but we never get to learn anything from her. She is just made up of clichéd dialogue that highlights her more spiritually aware self. Yes, Ultima and Antonio develop a friendship, which allows him to view the world through her eyes. According to Ultima, the entire universe is made up living creatures, all connected and flowing together in perfect unison. I feel like I’ve heard this type of thinking one too many times. I was almost expecting her to break out in a rendition of “The Circle of Life.” I couldn’t take her seriously, because she didn’t talk or act like an actual character. Instead, her entire persona is made up of mystical catch phrases. We aren’t sure who she is or where she came from. How exactly does she have an owl for a friend who will attack anyone she so chooses?
Through his interactions with Ultima, Antonio begins to question the world around him. He sees the good and evil in other people, and wonders why people choose their path in life. There are a number of separate threads that examine this theme, including Antonio’s encounters with fellow schoolmates, his father dealing with villagers with violent force, and the involvement of Antonio’s brothers in WWII. All of them hint at this theme, but none are really followed through. In one particular moment, Antonio asks his father why people do bad things. That’s a good question, but it’s never fully answered. Instead of developing this further, Franklin drops it to focus on the plot involving Tenorio’s quest for vengeance. I suppose Antonio’s story is a coming of age one, but what are supposed to take from it? Yes, some people are good and some people are bad. This seems fairly simple. Advertisements point out that the source material was banned at one time due to its depiction of religion. I sense the book gives a far more in-depth exploration of human nature than the film did.
Bless Me, Ultima feels like it has something important to say but can’t find the right words to say it. The execution prohibits the message from coming across. The episodic narrative never allows the momentum to build, the pacing was sluggish, the dialogue was wooden, and the character development was lacking. Almost immediately after watching it, I started to forget about it.
Final Grade: C-