I’m a big fan of Magic Realism stories. One of my favorite novels is Gabriel Garci Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, one of the defining works of the genre. I’m probably so fascinated by it because I’d like to think it actually exists – that there is some magic in this world, no matter how vague or small it might be, helping us move forward as a society and as humans. When I heard that Rudolfo Anaya’s controversial novel ‘Bless Me, Ultima’ was being adapted to a film, I was instantly intrigued. The movie is a wonderful coming-of-age tale with fine filmmaking, and is indeed quite magical at times.
The story takes place at the tail-end of World War II in rural New Mexico, and focuses on a loving Hispanic family. We see the world through the eyes of Antonio Marez, a young boy living on his family’s farm who searches for guidance in the world. When a dear family friend and healer by the name of Ultima moves in, young Antonio is entranced by her. The two form a connection, in which Ultima teaches Antonio how to respect and love nature and the Earth in order to lead a good life.
Ultima herself knows that she doesn’t have that much time in the world, so she does everything she can to teach Antonio her knowledge and otherworldly skills. You see, Ultima is viewed by others as a witch who delivers curses. She’s accused of cursing her enemies and healing the near-death back to health. The novel goes much deeper into this paranormal aspect, bit the film adaptation directed by Carl Franklin puts more focus on young Antonio going through his boyhood and discovering the light and dark sides of life.
Antonio goes to a strict Catholic school where kids are punished more often that actually taught anything. There, he befriends a kid who does not believe in God. He gets picked on in school for being different, for being smart, and for having a “witch” living with him. Meanwhile, the daughter of one of the prominent men in the rural town passes away. The father blames Ultima for cursing the girl. In a blind rage, he recruits others with literal pitchforks and torches to go on a witch hunt.
While this might seem like a very adult, very dark movie at times, Franklin takes a youthful and light touch with the material. This is more a coming-of-age story than a paranormal thriller about witchcraft.
Franklin shows us the beautiful landscapes of rural New Mexico, where we get a glimpse of just how beautiful the world is for Antonio, despite the horrific things going on around him. The director seems to be conveying that nature and the Earth will always bring us peace. The film is terrifically shot and well acted. The most recognizable name in the cast is Benito Martinez (from ‘The Shield’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy’), who plays Antonio’s father. Miriam Colon plays Ultima with grace, and comes across like a kind and warm grandmother with a very haunting side. She can scare you, then in a flash, make you fall in love with her. As the young Antonio, Luke Ganalon does a decent job playing the straight and narrow. I’m sure he’ll come into his own as an actor in time.
‘Bless Me, Ultima’ is an endearing film full of wonder, magic and family. It has a good message and a great cast. Even though it probably won’t be a giant blockbuster at the box office, I have a feeling that families across the globe will gravitate towards this light-hearted film to share with their kids.