Review: Bless Me, Ultima – A charming chunk of Chicano culture
This must be the Season of the Witch. With the films Beautiful Creatures and Hansel & Gretel already flying around theaters, now we have a more low-key Hispanic themed witch-tale in Bless Me, Ultima. But this film’s sorceress storyline is just the stage for a charming look at Chicano culture.
Set in the majestic New Mexico farmlands of the 1940s, Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of seven year-old Antonio Marez (Luke Ganalon) and his fascination with the curandera (a healer), named Ultima (Miriam Colon), who comes to live with his family.
Antonio is a smart, good-hearted kid with interests both in the Catholic Church and in the shamanistic medicine that Ultima practices. The wise curandera recognizes the kindness in the boy’s soul and tries to teach him her ways; and the other adults and children in the boy’s life also see him as a priestly like figure, even confessing their sins to him.
When Ultima cures a man who was cursed by three local witch sisters, the spell is reversed back to them killing one of the girls, whose father (Castulo Guerra) then demonizes the old healer and attempts to turn the local farmers against her.
This battle between good and evil is not played out with fancy special effects flying from the protagonist’s finger-tips, but with more believable and subtle methods like blended plants and herbs and earthly connections to the land and its animals; a welcome change from the special effects laden “witch” spectacles of late.
I loved the diverse textures of this humble film and it reminded me of the recent Life of Pi, with its deep questions regarding God and religion; but it is also reminiscent of the 1986 film, Stand by Me, in that it is a coming of age movie set in a different, more innocent, era and narrated by the adult character looking back on the events of his childhood and how they shaped the person he has become.
Bless Me, Ultima is certainly not a political movie, but I think that anyone involved or interested in the current immigration debate should see this film. It gracefully captures the rich cultural traditions of our country’s indigenous Hispanic culture and the hard-working families that helped to shape our nation.
The cast of Bless Me, Ultima, which includes Benito Martinez (Sons of Anarchy), Dolores Heredia and Diego Miro, is excellent; and Luke Ganalon, the talented young actor who carries the film as Antonio, is marvelous. In fact the entire cast of children in this movie is first rate.
Bless Me, Ultima is an adaptation of the first book in a series by acclaimed author Rudolfo Anaya and it was written for the screen and directed by Carl Franklin (Out of Time). This film has some beautiful cinematography by Paula Huidobro that has me contemplating a site-seeing trip to New Mexico.
This is a wonderful little film that is a refreshing change from the crop of crime dramas and action flicks that are currently in theaters and anyone interested in learning about our nation’s southwest cultural heritage and folklore will absolutely love this movie. Grade: 7/10
Photos © 2013 – Arenas Entertainment