Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 novel “Bless Me, Ultima” is considered essential Latino literature for its lyrical exploration of the uncomfortable coexistence of folk traditions and Catholicism in rural Mexican-American culture. Writer-director Carl Franklin approaches “Bless Me, Ultima” with a great deal of respect for his source material, resulting in a drama that hits the main points of the novel but occasionally struggles to cast its own spell.
“Bless Me, Ultima” pivots on the arrival of family matriarch Ultima (Miriam Colon), who has come to live out her last days with her daughter’s family in rural, World War II-era New Mexico. She is a curandera, a folk healer by most definitions, but to the minds of many in their small community, Ultima is a witch, or bruja. At 6, youngest son Antonio (Luke Ganalon) is trying to comprehend how his grandmother’s mystical beliefs square with what he learns from the hard-line local priest (David Rees Snell), especially when he witnesses Ultima saving a man’s life.
The man in question was supposedly cursed by an actual bruja, one of a trio of sisters practicing black magic late at night on the outskirts of town. Antonio sees Ultima coax the curse from the man’s body in the form of a writhing, hairball-like mass. When the witches start dying, their father Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), pulls together a posse to kill or remove Ultima and her old ways.
Like Anaya’s novel, Franklin’s script is remarkable for not passing judgment on whether Ultima’s beliefs or the Catholic teachings are correct — in fact, the film posits that both the hand of God and the works of a skilled curandera can exist together. Franklin (“Devil in a Blue Dress,” “One True Thing”) made some cuts from Anaya’s story for the sake of streamlining and fell back on narration (Alfred Molina as the grown Antonio) to bridge gaps in the film’s narrative.
Franklin’s staid direction deprives the story of some of the mystic power that should be on display.
— George Lang