‘Bless Me, Ultima’ fails to impress

Posted April 17, 2013


“Bless Me, Ulitma” is certainly a visually beautiful film. From the first shot, the New Mexican countryside is the star of this movie. The cinematography of this film is filled with the kind of slow, poignant panning shots that make nature documentaries like “Blue Planet” so special.

That being said, the film’s prettiness is one of the few positives “Bless Me, Ultima” has going for it.

The film, an adaption of Rodolfo Anayo’s award-winning 1972 novel of the same name, stars Luke Ganalon as Antonio, a 7 year-old boy living in World War II-era New Mexico. When Ultima (Miriam Colon), an aging mystic, comes to live with Antonio’s family, Antonio learns to live with the land and to respect the ancient native magic that Ulitma uses to heal people.

The plot and characterization are among the film’s most serious drawbacks. When viewing “Bless Me, Ultima,” it’s clear that there are lessons the viewer is supposed to get out of it—this movie is about more than just a boy in New Mexico.

Unfortunately, the message doesn’t exactly stick, as far too many parts of the plot seem too clichéd to watch with a straight face.

The characters don’t seem particularly deep. Rather, they reflect common stock characters—the wise native woman in touch with the spirit of the land, the young boy who knows the emotional depth of the world and has overwrought pensive narration to prove it, the overly vindictive priest, the drunkard with the heart of gold (named, of all things, “Narciso”), and, of course, the eyepatch-wearing, cartoonish villain.

For good measure, the film’s corny message is also hammered in with symbolism so obvious that it makes the viewer feel babied. For example, the first time the film shows an owl staring straight into the camera, it’s groan-worthy: everyone knows that this is going to show up in increasingly forced ways throughout the movie. The more the owl appears, the more it might as well be carrying a red, neon sign that flashes, “I’m a symbol.” Symbolism like this also keeps reappearing in the dialogue, which can be wooden at times.

Of course, “Bless Me, Ultima” isn’t complete trash. Both the cinematography and the music selections, which were southwestern enough to set the scene without screaming “Yee-Haw,” were pretty. And the costume design felt accurate for both the time period and the family’s socio-economic status.

But it’s also clear that this could have been a far better movie. Some of the film’s scenes, like when Antonio runs out of his first grade class in shame because he brought a burrito rather than a sandwich, are better than whatever scenes reinforce the message the film is shoving down the viewer’s throat. If director Carl Franklin had taken scenes like that and expanded upon them, what would be left is a far better coming-of-age story focusing more on Antiono and his circumstances.

By the end of “Bless Me, Ultima,” there might have been an important lesson to learn. But whatever it was, it didn’t stick much due to hackneyed characterization and an incredibly predictable ending.

  • “Bless Me, Ultima”
  • Rating: Two and a half stars out of five
  • Rated PG-13
  • Starring Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez and Castulo Guerra
  • Running Time: 106 minutes