Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

There is a new addition to the Márez household and word has it that she is no ordinary person. Her name is Ultima (Miriam Colon) and there are those believe that she is a bruja, a witch, while others refer to her as a curandera, a gifted being with great powers of healing. Six-year-old Antonio (Luke Ganalon) grows close to the old woman because she shares her wisdom with him. Eventually, Antonio is inspired to ask questions about his faith and morality, why evil exists, and why evil sometimes goes unpunished.

The film is not about religion even though the central character is a Catholic. It is about spirituality and the story weaves in coincidences, faith, and mysticism to create a fabric of childhood memories that is magical and vibrant. And with my experiences, having been raised in a Catholic household and environment, I found that a lot of the feelings—the fears, the curiosities, the questions—ring true. I still have my memory of a curandera coming to visit my grandmother’s house, the area rural at the time—over summer vacation to help rid someone of an evil spirit.

It is an immersive look into a specific life because it takes its time to engage the senses and bothers with details. For instance, when Ultima points out certain plants she uses to make medicine to Antonio, the camera shows us the leaves, the stems, how it moves against the wind, and what sort of environment it prefers. We feel the boy not only listening but also thinking and processing the information that his given to him. Later, it makes sense that he notices the contradictions in his faith, whether it be through teachings or how people around him choose to live their lives.

In a lot of ways, the story, based on the novel by Rudolfo Anaya, is about outsiders. Antonio’s family lives away from everybody else. Ultima is feared. That is, until her services are needed. Once she has done her job, her name is back to being whispered about. One of Antonio’s friends, Florence (Diego Miró), is given a hard time by the other kids because he does not believe in God, only attending catechism because he wants to be with his friends. Even Antonio is an outsider. He is willing to probe so deeply into his faith that there are times when he is mocked. We sympathize with these outsiders in the way they are treated by others and circumstance.

It is a wise decision to minimize the magic—if it occurred in the first place. Notice that there are fewer magical elements and realistic images become more prevalent as the protagonist gets older. The three Márez brothers coming home from the war, disillusionment, and deaths move to the center slowly and claim appropriate gravity.

Written and directed by Carl Franklin, “Bless Me, Ultima” provides a beautiful portrait of clashes: Mexican and Native American heritage, the effects of the war and being at home, generational gap between children and parents, blindly following and questioning. Once in a while a thoughtful movie comes along and it requires a thoughtful audience.

4 replies »

  1. Would you believe I actually saw this when it was in theaters. I think its run lasted about 1 week. The themes of religion vs. mysticism is addressed but the conflict doesn’t really resonate. Actress Miriam Colon is appropriately mysterious and benevolent as Ultima but young actor Luke Ganalon is vague as a character. Given to blank stares as events happen, he fails to truly engage as our lead protagonist. His spiritual development is key to the narrative, but his odyssey seems kind of perfunctory. I just thought it was OK.

    • Haha! You’re one of the lucky few then because the movie is very good. ;)

      I will respectfully disagree that the religion vs. mysticism angle did not resonate. To me, it did. I felt the kid’s struggle in trying to make sense of what he is seeing versus what he is feeling versus what he is taught to feel or think. When I was a kid, I believed in things like witchcraft, evil spirits, and the like. I felt that the picture captured some of that anxiety.

      Also, I liked that it is about someone who is genuinely curious about what having faith entails. I was raised Catholic and it was around the character’s age when I started to wonder if some of the things I’m being taught is right or wrong for me on personal level. Antonio detects some of the hypocrisies and I thought the material was brave in taking a child’s mind seriously.

      I think movies like this are a rarity. This one deserves a wider audience.

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