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The magical film “Bless Me, Ultima,” based on the 1972 novel of that name by Rudolfo Anaya, was just released on Feb. 22 in a limited distribution across the country, the result of a very warm response in New Mexico, where the story takes place, and in El Paso in September of last year.
The story, set in rural 1940s New Mexico, is about a young Mexican-American boy, Antonio Marez, and la Grande, Ultima, the elderly – but powerful – curandera, or healer, who comes to live the “last of her days” with the Luna y Marez family.
Ultima was the midwife at Tony’s birth, and has known he and she would have a special connection. That connection opens to Tony the beauty of his natural surroundings and shows him that many spiritual paths exist, not only his mother’s devout Catholicism, and it may be through them that questions about life and faith can be answered.
His connection with Ultima also helps him to see in a new light the pressure he feels from his parents to choose his mother’s family’s way of life as farmers and his father’s family’s, as caballeros out on the llano.
When the sheriff is killed by a returned soldier with PTSD, the “men do what men will do,” Ultima tells Tony, her response to his concern that they may all go to Hell.
Ultima’s way is different, but no less powerful: When Tenorio, a wealthy citizen, refuses to tell his daughters – who are brujas, or witches – to lift the curse they have put on one of Tony’s uncles, only Ultima can save him. Tony learns from this too.
Tony grows older and starts school. The war ends and his three older brothers return home. Mundane events occur and Tony learns from them as well. His relationship with Ultima strengthens too. Tenorio’s hatred for Ultima grows when his daughters begin to sicken, and his revenge against her becomes wilder.
Tony’s loss of innocence/coming of age in “Bless Me, Ultima” is partly about experience and education of different kinds, and partly about the questions he learns to ask – because God or gods do not give out the answers so easily.
Director/writer Carl Franklin – who is also an actor – has reproduced the magical feel of the book. By and large the movie is faithful to the events of the book, but some integral aspects have been left out or depicted so subtly they are not likely to be available to the viewer who has not read the book or has not read it recently.
One in particular is the Golden Carp that in the book represents for Tony the possibility of a caring deity that bestows beauty, not vengeance, on its people, and does not require belief in it to do so.
That such a carp actually lives in the waterway and is a deity they can see makes a difference: Tony sees the Golden Carp as a possible salvation for his friend Florence, who has been dealt a life that prevents him from believing in God.
This was a god Florence could believe in. “Florence needed at least one god,” Tony says in the book, “and I was sure he would believe in the golden carp.” Without this thread, what happens to Florence is much less important than in the movie.
Further, it is a main conclusion of the book that Tony sees the possibility and the necessity for a synthesis of different beliefs to make a new religion for a new age – for the new Nuevos Mexicanos. Pitting only Ultima’s magical spirituality against Catholicism makes a different kind of argument, one much starker and black-and-white.
The acting is marvelous: Luke Ganalon, 11 years old when he played Tony; Miriam Colon, for 35 years a major figure in New York City’s Hispanic theatre moment, as Ultima; Benito Martinez, who plays Tony’s father, best known for his role in “The Shield,” Dolores Heredia, who plays Tony’s mother. Castulo Guerra is perfectly villainous as Tenorio, the father of the witches. Joaquin Cosio plays Narciso – a drunk but a good man – with a little too much drama, but likeably.
The novel, Mr. Anaya’s first, is to some degree autobiographical. He used, he says, the town he lived in and many of the people who lived there.
The book and its author figured largely in the Chicano Literary Movement in the 70s and 80s. Mr. Anaya began writing it in college, he says in a National Endowment for the Arts interview, where he “learned to love literature.”
When it came to his own writing, however, he says, “those models didn’t work for me. I ha[d] to find my own way of writing.” Mr. Anaya has also said that
“Bless Me, Ultima” has long been controversial for its violence and references to sex – though compared with nearly anything one might see on TV now it is quite tame – and for its use of the oral tradition Mr. Anaya grew up familiar with.
Now considered by most a classic, and certainly a Chicano classic, “Bless Me, Ultima” was selected by the NAE for “The Big Read,” an endeavor intended to “revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture,” according to its website (neabigread.org).
The program launched nationally in 2007. Interestingly, “Bless Me, Ultima” was banned in Tucson, Ariz., schools after the state’s governor Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2281 in May 2010. Mexican-American Studies have been cut from the curriculum as subversive.
“Bless Me, Ultima” is a wonderful film, somewhat flawed, but 100 percent worth seeing.
106 minutes Rated PG-13