Combustible Celluloid
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With: Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez, Dolores Heredia, Castulo Guerra, Joaqu’n Cosio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Reko Moreno, Luis Bordonada, Joseph A. Garcia, Raśl Castillo, Miguel Gomez, Diego Mir—, Kevin Ruiz, Juan Martinez
Written by: Carl Franklin, based on a novel by Rudolfo Anaya
Directed by: Carl Franklin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexual references
Running Time: 106
Date: 02/22/2013

Bless Me, Ultima (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Witchy Woman

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Rudolfo Anaya's 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima is apparently taught in classrooms and is on its way to becoming an American classic. But if you're unfamiliar with it -- as, I confess, I was -- it really has kind of an awkward title, and not at all easily marketable. I suspect that many viewers will not bother to see this wonderful movie, simply because of it.

As for myself, I wanted to see it because I was familiar with its director, Carl Franklin, an actor who started working as a director for Roger Corman, had a very strong run back in the 1990s, and then hit a slump. His excellent film One False Move (1992) was championed by Siskel & Ebert when few others would have anything to do with it. His next, Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), is, to my eyes, a landmark of the detective genre. Next he directed one of Meryl Streep's 17 Oscar-nominated performances in One True Thing (1998).

His next two were mediocre thrillers with generic titles, High Crimes (2002) and Out of Time (2003). He went into television for ten years, and has now returned to movie theaters. His new effort shows that, though he broke through with suspense and crime stories, he's more comfortable with characters and history. In other words, he requires space and time to stretch out and explore emotions; fast-paced thrillers are not his forte.

So, yes, Bless Me, Ultima belongs with his trio of excellent 1990s work, a "comeback" if you like that word. It's a coming-of-age story, which usually bores me, but by using supernatural elements and an episodic structure, as well as deep empathy, Franklin beautifully surpasses genre conventions.

Seven year-old Antonio (Luke Ganalon) lives on his family farm in Mexico during WWII (the movie is spoken in English). A healer, Ultima (Miriam Colon, who played Tony Montana's mom in Scarface), comes to stay with the family, intending to live out the rest of her days there with Antonio, the last baby she delivered. Sometimes we see her gathering plants and herbs, explaining them to Antonio as she goes, and sometimes it's suggested that she has actual magical powers.

Antonio and Ultima develop a special bond that manifests itself in several ways throughout the story. For example, Ultima is called to heal a sick cousin after he has meddled in the affairs of some supposed witches. Ultima complies, knowing that her act will bring more trouble later. It does, in the form of the father of the witches, who begins haunting the countryside like a dark, vengeful specter.

Other episodes are simpler and more realistic, such as Antonio's older brothers returning home from the war, changed, and more interested in wandering and pleasure than they are in continuing to work their father's farm. One nice little subplot has Antonio hoping to outrun a quick neighbor boy in a daily race to school across a bridge. (The movie's solution to this conflict is rather clever and touching.)

Bless Me, Ultima also avoids most of the stale chestnuts of this genre, such as a cute sidekick or a silly little romance. Instead, Antonio spends time discussing God -- or the lack thereof -- with an atheist classmate. He also asks his father (Benito Martinez) about the nature of evil, and the father's answer is surprisingly astute and sympathetic. Perhaps the only real staple here is narration by the grown-up Antonio, though the reassuring voice of Alfred Molina is hard to complain about.

Good and evil, God and magic, all come into play here, and it's all in the details. Franklin intuitively feels out this material with his casting and filmic rhythms; not every scene is about Antonio and not every scene is about Ultima, but they're all about life and community and belief and growing up. If viewers can find their way to this special movie, they may come away with a memorably moving experience.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment seems to have had a lack of faith in this movie. It has been released only on DVD, no Blu-ray, and with no extras other than a batch of trailers and an optional Spanish-language track. I hope people eventually discover this wonderful movie anyway.

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