In one of those odd coincidences that crop up more often than you’d think in a movie reviewer’s life, I saw Carl Franklin’s movie of the Rudolfo Anaya novel Bless Me, Ultima on the same weekend as Richard LaGravenese’s Beautiful Creatures. Both, in their different ways, deal with the supernatural. Beautiful Creatures seeks to tap into that streak of idle teen necrophilia that made Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books and the movies made from them so wildly popular; the same impulse is on view in the far superior Warm Bodies.
In Bless Me, Ultima the spiritualism is earthier, more covert, less trendy. There’s nothing that happens in Franklin’s movie that can’t be explained as the simple random workings of a natural and mundane universe. And yet, the movie, like Anaya’s novel, encourages us to see the struggle of good and evil lurking under the surface of things, between and even within individual human beings. In Bless Me, Ultima’s universe, there’s more intimation of the supernatural in the simple blink of an owl’s eye than in all the vampire glitter and demonic transformations that a battalion of visual-effects techs can whip up on their 4K CGI programs.
The movie is set in rural New Mexico in 1944, where 7-year-old Antonio Maacute;rez y Luna (Luke Ganalon) is just beginning to become aware of the world outside his own family: father Gabriel (Benito Martinez), mother Maria (Dolores Heredia) and two older sisters; three adult brothers are away at the war (it’s clear that the still-youthful Gabriel and Maria began their family when they were little more than teenagers).
Into the household comes Ultima (Miriam Colon) a local curandera, or healer. Some call her a bruja (witch), but she is loved and revered by Antonio’s parents as the midwife who brought all their children into the world. Ultima says she has come to spend her last days among the Maacute;rez family, and she feels a special kinship with Antonio, “The last child I pulled from your womb.” Antonio is, in that sense, indeed the last—el último—just as Ultima is the last of her kind, a curandera able to treat sickness, deliver babies, counter evil spells, and instruct a wide-eyed boy in the wonders and everyday magic of the world around him, all with the same serene, all-wise aplomb.
In the course of the story—the movie covers a year or two of Antonio’s young life —the boy sees more death than most children his age. A local man back from the war who goes on a shooting spree prompted by post-traumatic stress and is himself shot down by a hastily assembled posse. An orphaned and sad classmate (Diego Miró) who drowns in what may have been an accident or a suicide. And more, before the story has run its course. Antonio also sees the black heart of Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), the barber and saloonkeeper in the hardscrabble little town who calls Ultima a witch, but whose own daughters Ultima accuses of being the ones casting evil spells and spreading their poison. Through it all, Antonio struggles to understand the world and his place in it, where good and evil lie, and to fit all this into the framework provided by the Catholic faith he was born into.
Franklin’s cast is made up of experienced unknowns. The closest thing to a star is Alfred Molina, the unseen narrator who tells the story in the voice of the adult Antonio. The names may be unknown, but many of the faces are familiar, and the faces confer their familiarity on Bless Me, Ultima, giving it the resonance of a folk tale. Even the occasional stiffness of some of the child actors—particularly those playing Antonio’s pals and schoolmates—underscores this resonance; it’s almost as if they’re delivering their recitations in a pageant presented by Ultima’s open-air Sunday school.
The symbolism of Bless Me, Ultima is seldom subtle—even the young hero’s name, literally “seas and moon,” is freighted with it, as is the name of the wise old heroine and the title, which can be read as “bless me, at last.” But as Ultima’s medicine makes clear in Antonio’s world, sometimes unsubtle symbols can be the most potent.