A precocious yet perpetually cheerful boy comes of age in Bless Me, Ultima, a warm-hearted period piece from screenwriter and director Carl Franklin. Based on Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, the lovingly photographed film mixes various elements of its time and place, an amalgam of Latino and Native American folklore as well as local customs, fears and prejudices.
Set in 1944 New Mexico, the film’s dusty locales and dated attitudes seem taken from an even greater distance. But Franklin chronicles the interlocking stories of a family and the community in which they live, taking his time to concentrate more on rendering his milieu and its inhabitants than on ratcheting up false dramas and contrived crises. Narrative engagement comes well enough but from an organic interpretation of lives lived under great duress and hardships.
In one of the state’s rural, poverty-stricken areas, a close-knit family struggles to survive and maintain equilibrium while three adult sons fight in World War II. At home, the father and mother (Benito Martinez and Dolores Heredia) make ends meet while raising their daughters and remaining young son, Antonio (Luke Ganalon).
Into this mix comes Ultima (Miriam Colon), the grandmother who arrives with a reputation of being a witch. She openly admits that she has come to spend her last days, a needless confession taken in stride.
She settles in and grows close to Antonio, a dynamic that makes for the bulk of the movie. She never denies her supernatural prowess, instead taking almost boastful pride in her healing powers. And she always takes the time to walk with Antonio, pointing out native plants and their healing properties, while also providing cinematographer Paula Huidobro an opportunity to capture the endless New Mexican landscapes and shimmering sunsets.
Grandmother and grandson bond, the sons return from war, and Ultima brings a sick man back to health despite local harangues, mostly religious, about her witchcraft. A climactic scene comes when a local mob gathers at the home demanding removal of the sorceress.
The overly abundant narration (from Alfred Molina) creates much of the dominating emotions in various scenes, while the purple prose from the novel frequently shades the proceedings: “Our rivers no longer sang the song of summer.”
But such flowerings do not derail the film’s ultimate path of a boy’s bumpy journey toward maturity.
Bless Me, Ultima
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes.