Nearly as sacred as the Good Book itself in some circles, Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” has survived the leap to the bigscreen with much of its magic intact, thanks to a respectful if somewhat wooden adaptation by writer-director Carl Franklin. Offsetting stiff acting with rich atmosphere, visuals and music, this long-awaited pic hits the novel’s key plot points without denying its spiritual soul, as a New Mexico boy tries to reconcile Catholic schooling with his family’s waning native traditions. Though the unsubtitled bilingual release will appeal most to Latinos (having earned nearly $500,000 in El Paso and New Mexico already), with care, the Arenas release could also attract decent arthouse interest.
In the three decades since its initial publication, Anaya’s 1972 novel has become a cornerstone of Chicano literature, its arrival heralding an entirely different set of values and style of expression from the Anglo-centric fiction that had come before. For starters, it gave fresh voice to the mestizo experience, using the arrival of a mystical old granny to dramatize the clash between conflicting aspects of a young boy’s mixed-race identity.
Needing a place to live out her final days, Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to stay with the Marez family at precisely the moment 6-year-old Antonio (Luke Ganalon) — Tony to his friends — starts to question the forces of good and evil at play in the world around him. Tony’s thoughts are thrown into turmoil by a traumatic event he witnesses mere yards from his front door, as his father and a posse of respectable locals shoot down the man who murdered the town sheriff.
Over the course of the next two years, Tony will take in far more violence than anyone so innocent should have to process, and twice during that time, dying men will appeal to him for absolution. These are confusing times for Tony, and the script juggles two perspectives: the sentimental nostalgia embodied by Alfred Molina’s years-later narration and the wide-eyed subjectivity of the moment, in which young Tony grapples with the moral paradoxes around him.
Both gentle Ultima and the severe town priest (David Rees Snell) seem convinced of their respective faiths, but Tony doesn’t understand how both can be right. (To streamline things, Franklin has omitted the golden carp — a competing folk god that further clouds his view of religion in the novel.) Ultima, as her name suggests, is the last in a line of curanderas, or native healers. She respects the still-unspoiled earth around her (the production shot in New Mexico, taking advantage of authentic locations), but scares the locals with her knowledge of certain “unnatural” techniques.
Tony has a chance to observe Ultima’s special gifts firsthand when she saves a feverish man, forcing him to cough up a curse festering in his guts, which he expels like a tangled, green hairball. And yet, it is Ultima, not the trio of witches responsible, whom the town accuses of being a “bruja,” a charge led by the three sisters’ vengeful father, Tenorio (Castulo Guerra).
Just as Anaya did on the page, Franklin embraces a world in which God and ancient magic can coexist, where man must sometimes do evil to uphold good, and where tragedy occasionally strikes without reason, as evidenced by the fate of Tony’s older brothers, who return from World War II broken by the experience. The helmer, who also adapted “Devil in a Blue Dress” with Denzel Washington, prefers to depict such moral paradoxes rather than to question them outright. But that approach allows some of the material’s themes to sneak by unremarked, while forcing an overall weaker cast to awkwardly overstate others (much-laureled Mexican actor/scholar Joaquin Cosio is virtually unintelligible here as the beloved town drunk).
Fortunately, “Bless Me, Ultima” succeeds at placing audiences inside the head of its young protagonist, who is more of an observer than a doer, and yet, because he manages to be present for all the narrative’s key incidents, emerges the most transformed by them. With its sometimes-skeptical view of religion and willingness to confront adult themes — from violence to the corrupting influence of alcohol and prostitution on supporting characters — Anaya’s novel has encountered its fair share of controversy over the years. The film will no doubt face similar criticism, and yet, for audiences young and old alike, both represent valuable coming-of-age tracts that reject formula in favor of big questions.