Based on the bestseller of the same name by Rudolfo Anaya, BLESS ME, ULTIMA is a profound story told in a deceptively simple way. Deceptive, but curiously suitable for a film about identity, belief, and the nature both good and evil in all their guises. Set in the rural New Mexico of the mid-1940s, this is a straightforward consideration of all those things presented with the unmistakable and unassailable logic of a child.
Ultima (Miriam Colon)is a curandera, a traditional healer and worker of spells who comes to live out her last days with the Marez family. A social outcast who is, nonetheless, sought out when sickness or curses appear, Ultima provokes mixed feelings the daughters of the house. There is no such conflict in the youngest child of the family, seven-year-old Antonio (Luke Ganelon), a thoughtful child with a penchant for asking those troubling questions about good and evil that make the adults around him uncomfortable. Not so Ultima, who senses in him a kindred spirit. On him she bestows her knowledge of herbal medicine, and of the mystical connection between all things, equally direct when pointing out the healing properties of a plant or making wax dolls to remove a curse.
The magical elements of the film, the totemic presence of an owl, the whispered voice that comes from nowhere, are kept as simple and straightforward as Antonioís childlike logic. Told from his point of view, there is an acceptance of the presence of the invisible world that makes it as palpable to him as the chili peppers he helps harvest, and that invests even the act harvesting with the same enchantment.
For all the wonder, this is also a world where death is always close at hand, and injustice even closer, causing Antonio to silently ponder the shortcomings he discovers in the teachings of Mother Church, as well as the intolerance and hypocrisy that go unquestioned in his community. The genius of the novel, and of the film, is how he reconciles the two, becoming neither bitter, nor cynical, instead accepting that the world is an imperfect place, but that there is a larger universe to consider.
The episodic style of the film works as a series of parables leading up to the final lesson that is as uplifting as it is devastating. The small hurtful moments, such as the silent derision of his peers at school when he takes a burrito, rather than a sandwich, from his lunch pail is as integral as a meaningless death, a fatherís sorrow, and of the same fabric as Ultimaís lessons about listening to the river speak and of standing up to danger without flinching, or even being afraid. There is something so very unstudied, so natural, yet so precise in the performances of Colon and Ganelon as teacher and disciple. She with the knowing eyes of a woman who has seen and known much in her long life, and he with the strength of innocent curiosity that takes in the world at face value, without the shading of adult compromise or received prejudice. There is also in both of them an appropriate reverence for the world that is never reduced to dogma. The childlike wonder of discovery shines in them both, and makes it possible, and even imperative, for the audience to see the world through their eyes. And though rooted in a place so real that you can almost taste the dust in the air, or feel the sun beating down on your head, or bask in the warmth of a motherís pride in sending her son to his first day of school. This is a universal tale that is as elemental as the air you breathe.
BLESS ME. ULTIMA is a heartfelt film that makes its points with the same patience, subtlety, and wisdom that Ultima both embodies and imparts. The telling of how a boy learns about the wider world beyond his home and beyond conventional wisdom becomes a heroís journey to rank with the classic ones of myth and legend.