‘Ultima’ portrays 1940s Chicano world

Posted March 20, 2013


It is not often that you have a regional based film with real regional characters shot in the actual region it aims to portray. “Bless Me, Ultima” can be called a pioneer of sorts.

It stars a young boy and an older woman (rare nowadays) and attempts to relay a universal message rooted in Latin American culture.

imagesIt is a wonder that that this had a box office release. Unfortunately studios don’t tend to back Latino-centric films because they believe there is not a strong enough audience.

“Bless Me, Ultima” like “House of the Spirits” (Miramax films, 1993) is based on a commercially successful book in the magical realism movement popularized by Latin American literature, from Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits,” to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude.”

Perhaps the producers and directors banked on the commercial success from fans of the book and teachers as well. “Bless Me, Ultima,” the book, is a piece of Chicano literature that has been read in many classrooms and is considered a modern classic of the genre.

It also has stirred some controversy since it was published in 1972. Those in the Catholic community it aims to portray considered the “magic” in the book profane because of its ties to spirits that are not recognized by Catholics.

“Bless Me, Ultima,” the movie, is a photographic journey into a young boy’s coming of age in rural 1940s New Mexico. Thousands of stills could be pulled from the movie to make stunning photographs of the New Mexico landscape. It stays true to the book for the most part except that it removes the golden carp, a Pagan God that is seen in the book.

The movie starts with the arrival of Ultima, played by Miriam Colon, who after a long life as a curandera, wishes to live out her old age with the Marez/Luna Family. Colon, a Puerto Rican actress, has worked extensively in theater and screen. Perhaps she is most easily recognized as Tony Montana’s mom in “Scarface.”

A curandera is a healer as the term translates. Curandera(o)s can be midwives, physical healers and spiritual healers. They can take away curses through rituals and herbs or some specialize in the physical and can put broken bones back into place and bind them correctly. In Latin America they still exist and make a decent living. Yet some Catholics shun their techniques and consider them witches.

Antonia Marez, played by Luke Ganalon, is the youngest of the Marez/Luna clan and in the first five minutes of the movie makes an immediate connection with Ultima. He is an innocent and scholarly boy devoted to his faith in Catholicism. He asks a lot of questions and plays witness to conflicting and opposite ideals.

The source material is a strong story to which many can relate. It’s about coming to terms with opposing views and accepting both as legitimate. This is a recurring theme in Latin American art because of the fragmentation of opposing heritages. In Chicano culture the theme is the same, you are Mexican but you are just as American as well.

Luke Ganalon plays a strong Antonio Marez and is absolutely adorable. To watch a cute child see a drunk and broken veteran dying and begging for absolution with only a contemplative look is interesting.

“Bless Me Ultima” marks Luke’s film debut and he has another movie coming out this year titled “Model Home.” Those who have interviewed him are impressed with the 12-year-old’s mature professionalism. He has no problem playing a precocious boy since his parents have noted to the press that he has an “old soul.”

Antonio Marez has to choose whether to be scholar like his mom wants him to be, or a cowboy like his dad wishes. He has to choose between the promise of Catholicism and the truth he has seen in Ultima’s spiritual world.

Miriam Colon is a delight to watch as she plays Ultima with an authoritative presence that only old age can command. But there are too many characters and the rest of the acting is stiff.

While the content is melodramatic the acting falls flat and creates no emotional response.

Some scenes come off as cheesy and maybe it is because we don’t know enough about the many characters about which we are supposed to care.

As more books and graphic novels get made into movies, it becomes clear that too much is lost in adaptation. There is no point in a director trying to stay true to the book. Directors must be true to their medium and remember that some in the audience will have never read the book.

The movie had great cinematography that emphasized the beauty of New Mexico while the score added to the mystical cultural landscape of the film with its acoustic guitars and Native American flutes.

Carl Franklin directed and wrote the script. Franklin is a good director as his previous films, “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Out of Time,” can attest to but maybe he needed a script doctor.

Having that much power over a film can be damning or a blessing, but in the case of “Bless Me, Ultima” it is mostly damning. The script could of used a rewrite and the actors should have been directed better.

Unlike “The House of the Spirits” movie adaptation which stars Glenn Close, Wynona Ryder, and Meryl Streep as Latin Americans, the cast of “Bless Me, Ultima” is legit, which has many of us breathing a sigh of relief, finally Latinos get to play themselves.

But the director just didn’t direct them enough, and he broke the cardinal rule true to all narrative media: Show, don’t tell.

“Bless Me, Ultima” suffers from self-awareness. It is like a beautiful and interesting woman telling you how beautiful and interesting she is. It is not a bad movie, but the potential for greatness was there, which leaves one feeling dissatisfied as an audience member.

  • “Bless Me, Ultima”
  • 2013
  • Cast: Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez, Castulo Guerra.
  • Writer/director: Carl Franklin. From the novel by Rudolfo Anaya.
  • Producers: Jesse Beaton, Sarah DiLeo, Mark Johnson.
An Arenas Entertainment release.
  •  Running time: 106 minutes.
  • MPAA rating: PG-13
  •  Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Dolphin, Southland, Sunset, Miami Lakes, Mall of the Americas, Hialeah; in Broward: Paradise, Sawgrass.