‘Bless Me, Ultima’ Commits Sin Against Cinema

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.0/5.0
Rating: 2.0/5.0

CHICAGO – One of the major tenets of the “memoir” genre – the type of film in which a main character is looking back at their lives – is the unforgettable character that influences them forever. New Mexico during World War II is the setting for “Bless Me, Ultima.”

Based on a popular novel, the character of Ultima is an old woman who comes to live with her Mexican family in America. She possesses magical powers of vague proportions, and is thought of by others as a witch. For some reason, the little boy in the story (the person looking back at his life) is enamored of Ultima, except when he isn’t. The film doesn’t specifically focus on Ultima, and even though she is the title character she disappears for long stretches in the story, while other moments of the boy’s life are emphasized. There is no focus in the narrative, and all the characters are written broadly or introduced and shuffled aside. This creates a glacial pace for the story, which needs a blessing of some sort, mostly in the form of a rewrite from a heaven-sent screenwriter.

Antonio (Luke Ganalon) is a seven year-old boy living in New Mexico in the U.S. in the 1940s. His mother Maria (Dolores Heredia) and father Gabriel (Benito Martinez) take in an older relative named Ultima (Maria Colon). She is a curandera, a healer, and her powers border on the supernatural. The small town characterizes her as a witch, and when she is called upon to lift a curse from one of Antonio’s uncles – the unfortunate man witnessed the three daughters of town saloonkeeper Tenorio (Castulo Guerra) practicing Satanic rituals – the fallout comes when one of the daughters dies.

Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon
Antonio (Luke Ganalon) Listens to Ultima (Miriam Colon) in ‘Bless Me, Ultima’
Photo credit: Arenas Entertainment

This allows the villainous Tenorio to have an obsession against Ultima, and pursues her, with intention to kill her, throughout the movie. Meanwhile, Antonio is starting school, and begins a series of episodic scenarios which highlight the memorable people in his life, including Narciso the town drunk, his various childhood friends (including one boy who is oddly an atheist), the town priest Father Byrnes and eventually Ultima again, who pops up occasionally to remind Antonio who has the power.

This is based on a hugely popular 1972 novel by Rudolfo Anaya, and because of the way it is presented as a film it may be that the themes and multiple characters make it difficult to encapsulate. Director Carl Franklin (“One False Move”) adapted the screenplay, but kept going away from the main thread of the story so often that it questions which direction he really wanted to go. The presumed hero of the story, Ultima, becomes almost a distraction as she is important – disappearing for a significant amount of screen time.

One theory on this is that the book is highly cultural, rooted in Mexican mythology and familial roots. Franklin is a veteran director of several good films, but he is also an African American man from California, and couldn’t capture the flavor of a Chicano family in 1940s America, or at least could not find the cultural core. His composition was beautiful, and cinematographer Paula Huidobro creates some real beauty from the landscape of the mid-20th-century New Mexico, but even that becomes a distraction from the weakness of the overall presentation.

The performances were fairly soft as well, which lessened their impact. Miriam Colon as Ultima didn’t have the presence that was necessary for her character to oversee the proceedings, so when she disappears, she’s almost forgotten. The child actor, Luke Ganalon as Antonio, aged a couple years during his journey yet not grow up (did Ultima put a curse on him?). He is the glue between the multiple stories, but doesn’t hold them up. The villain Tenorio, portrayed by Castulo Guerra, is sorely unmotivated in his obsession with Ultima, and is bad just because the story says he is bad.

Castulo Guerra
Enter the Villain: Carlos Guerra in ‘Bless Me, Ultima’
Photo credit: Arenas Entertainment

There are some moments of tenderness and clarity in the film, and the heart of it is in the right place. The novel has been a popular teaching tool through its published life because of its multicultural themes, but the movie version doesn’t bring that element to light at all. On screen, it has the tentative feel of a complex journey from book to film, as in nobody could capture it in a cinematic way to put it into production, and when it finally was realized it still wasn’t captured. Maybe Ultima put a curse on it.

One of the few scenes that had the potential for some spice was a brief flash of Tenorio’s daughters practicing their dark ritualistic arts. It was hinted that their nubile forms performed these rituals in the nude. Given the “PG-13” rating, and the focus on a young boy and an old witch, even this scene was sadly shot above the neck – a symbol of the whole film. Curse me, Ultima.

“Bless Me Ultima” continues its limited release in Chicago on February 22th. See local listings for theaters and showtimes. Featuring Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez, Dolories Heredia and Castulo Guerra. Screenplay adapted and directed by Carl Franklin. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2013 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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