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Review: ‘Bless Me, Ultima’

Timeless Questions In A Time-Strapped Film

"Bless Me, Ultima" opens in San Diego February 22. It is far too evident that the script was chopped up from the original novel of the same name. But the story and themes are timeless.

(For the lazy or busy, here are the Cliff Notes.)

You can watch the trailer here, but it isn't a proper representation of the film. It doesn't do the story or its themes justice. The trailer presents "Ultima" as a witch hunt. Admittedly, this is a catchier hook, but it is far from the point of the film.

"Well, what is the point?!" you may ask. To which I may say, "don't use that tone with me!" And this is the point -- to understand our relationship with the divine, and to discern what (or who) the divine is for ourselves.

"Ultima" uses the story of a World War II era New Mexican boy (Luke Ganalon as Antonio) and his grandmother (Mirian Colon as Ultima) to evoke these questions.

We arrive at Antonio and Ultima's relationship after it has already begun. Ultima helped birth Antonio, the youngest of seven children, from his mother's (her daughter's) womb. According to the book, it is this experience, and Ultima's handling of the afterbirth, that defines what Antonio is to become -- a farmer, a priest, a spiritual wanderer, etc. Unfortunately, we don't get this complete picture from the film. We only see Antonio greeting his grandmother with an open curiosity at the front door. And from unimaginative story composition, we are made to assume they have an immediate, yet intimate, spiritual connection.

Ultima then moves into Antonio's home and shows him her ways of compassion, spiritual awareness, and medicinal practice.

Ultima (right) shows Antonio (left) how to handle plant life for medicinal use.

With the loving benevolence and trustworthy demeanor of an older, Mexican Oprah, the audience quickly cling to to Ultima as a spiritual guide, as does Antonio. Antonio is our story teller; we must see Ultima as he does. This connection does not grow authentically, as the scenes and character connections are rushed -- a symptom of chopped-up novel films. But it's a beautiful story that I want to feel genuine and natural. We just need more time to breathe in the content of the scenes -- to let actions settle.

The witch hunt aspect of the story is hardly worth mentioning, but it does provide closure. (Spoiler Alert that really doesn't spoil anything) Ultima is killed by a townsman whose children and wife die from witch-like reasons. He blames Ultima, who he also believes to be a witch.

Amid the hunt, Antonio treads in a sea of spiritual quandary. He is raised in a small town, in which all citizens are Catholic, and religion is a very important aspect of town life (as is alcohol and prostitution). Nearing his first communion, Antonio has to learn about the Catholic church and its teachings. As he prepares for this spiritual landmark, he learns that communion will make him "one with God." This notion confounds Antonio; he seeks answers with everyone he knows.

At home, he is lovingly encouraged by his mother for prayer recitation and his devotion to Catholic practices. From his brothers, he receives vague Sunday School answers. From Ultima, Antonio is gifted with broadly applicable pearls of wisdom. At church, he is taught strict notions in regards to piety and afterlife. At school and on the playground, Antonio and his friends deliberate as to what is "right" based on their individual experiences. My favorite line of the film comes from his non-believing red headed friend: "I didn't sin against God, he sinned against me!"

At first, it seems like this complex and fragile subject (religion/spirituality/the divine/virtuous living) is given to the children as a play toy with very limited supervision. Their spirituality doesn't remain constant past the church's annex. Why would adults fill children's minds with such difficult subject matter? But Antonio's further discernment and frank discussion with his father reminds us that nobody really knows. Many of us are very comfortable in our conclusions, but uncertainty remains. But it is the journey and the questions that are the goal -- to compassionately seek, as Ultima does.

"Bless Me, Ultima" is an introduction to uncertainty, and the beauty found within. At the film's end, we don't know what is to become of Antonio -- if he will be a priest as his friends suspect, a farmer like the men of his family, or a spiritual wanderer like Ultima. But we know Antonio's humble, questioning nature will remain as he determines his own relationship to God, and those around him.

NOTE: Look for Beth Accomando's video interview with Luka Ganalon tomorrow on Cinema Junkie.

Companion Viewing:

"Like Water For Chocolate" (1992)

"Ultima's" simple narration and attempt at rustic Mexican style brought back memories of this beautiful (more natural and well-paced) film. Warning: no food will be good enough after viewing -- ever.

"The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" (2002)

An accurate, funny, and tragic view of children wrestling with religion and life.

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