Bless Me, Ultima is a beautiful portrayal of the Latino culture, the film delivers the adaptation of the much-revered novel of the same name by Rodolfo Anaya. Alfred Molina’s narration as an older Antonio guides us into the beautiful aesthetic landscape of New Mexico, 1944, asking within its opening lines one of the most fundamental questions of human existence: “Why is there evil in the world?” Throughout the story, we have Molina’s voiceover serve as bookmarks between a series of loosely connected vignettes throughout the narrative that attempts to delve into that question.
Director Carl Franklin’s vision for the adaptation of the landmark 1972 novel constitutes an unsteady but endearing glimpse into the life of Antonio Marez (Luke Ganalon) as he and his struggling family cross paths with curandera Ultima (Míriam Colón). Upon her arrival, the local community enacts upon a continuing suspicion that she is a witch, inciting a series of threats against both her and the Marez family. Throughout the years, she and Antonio eventually develop a bond where she serves as his guidance and protection.
The narrative is a decidedly straight-forward retelling of a memory through the young Antonio’s perspective through his own engagement and reflection growing up in New Mexico. I was touched by the observational use of the cultural and natural landscape of the region, this was not a mere cash-in on a much beloved novel. Franklin maintains an understanding of narrative, utilization of folkloric character archetypes, and a respect of Chicano culture—that was evident throughout the film.
Curiously, as having never read the novel, I was vexed to whether the pacing issues were translating in adaptation or due to Franklin’s screenplay. There were moments where the film’s plot pushed forward but abruptly felt stopped by clunky scene transitions. Molina’s narration works to a certain extent, however it provides too much exposition—instead of engaging with the characters, we’re merely told what transpired rather than seeing the narrative unfold throughout our time with the Marez family. The film is observatory, which is fine but there never seems to be a real danger to the characters, never a thrill, or true sense of wonder. With good development between Ultima and Antonio, there’s little characterization left to the rest of the cast. Even when the villainous Tenorio (Castulo Guerra) starts to become troublesome, there’s no lingering threat or presence felt emotionally. As a result without that sense of dread personified or felt, it hinders the plot of this spiritually-conscious film.
But I was enraptured by immaculate beauty by cinematographer Paula Huidobro and Franklin truly has an eye for the vast natural landscape, which fits in perfectly with the ties between humanity and the land. We’re trusted to ease in this untouched and untapped world that has thus far only been captured through literature, corridos, and cuentos. Bless Me, Ultima serves as the gateway for future films to delve into the Chicano culture. Simply put, this film respects its audience, its culture, and values. Transitioning beyond caricatures, we’re treated to a story of substance that isn’t targeted for a exploitative profit.
Though deeper thematics are merely dabbled into for this adaptation, the folkloric elements of lechuzas, curanderas, and mythic elements translate well into the cinematic screen. Minor characterization and plot problems aside, this film serves as an invigorating start into the right direction for Latino-based cinema. It’s a film that can serve as a beacon for good cinema that promotes Latino culture, in that respect lies its value: to be that Ultima to future Latino-themed films.
★★★★ out of 5