‘Bless Me, Ultima’: Hey Hollywood! Ultima’s ready to move in and so are we
By Armando Huipe
When I received the call from our Editor-in-Chief informing me that I would have the chance to review the film adaptation of Bless Me, Ultima, I recalled reading the Rudolfo Anaya novel when I was in middle school in East Los Angeles. Even though the story took place in a rural town in New Mexico in the 1940s, I felt an incredibly strong connection to the story and its characters. I was especially drawn to the protagonist Antonio Juan Márez y Luna. When Ultima, a mysterious curandera, moves in with Antonio’s family, she presents Antonio with a compelling contradiction to his Catholic upbringing. At seven years old, Antonio begins to contemplate his family’s religion, indigenous roots, identity, and all the intersections in between.
This family-friendly film begins, as the book does, when Ultima (Miriam Colon), comes to live with Antonio’s (Luke Ganalon) family in rural Guadalupe, New Mexico during World War II. Worried about Ultima’s aging and declining health, Antonio’s parents (Dolores Heredia & Benito Martinez) offer to take her in. Ultima begins teaching Antonio about the power of the spiritual world, which the novel illustrates as energies associated with the land that defy reason and Catholicism. As Ultima and Antonio’s relationship grows, Antonio begins to question the strict Catholic doctrine that he has been taught by his parents. The plot is sprinkled with trademarks of a Mexican-American upbringing that serve as a roadmap to Antonio’s childhood; tortilla school lunches, church Sundays, catechism classes, and first communions. The characters carry a sense of pride in their lifestyle, as they balance their native culture with the American culture of the 1940s.
Miriam Colon’s veteran talent leads the cast, bringing Ultima to life. There are few names that can take command of such a wise and fearless character and Colon does a wonderful job. She is a figure that is adored for the healing properties of her potions, but vilified for her practice of “witchcraft” by the townspeople. My only qualm with Colon’s depiction is that I didn’t get to see more of her performance, as Ultima’s presence is edited down compared to the character’s prominence in the novel. The film is at its best when Ultima and Antonio are together on screen.
Luke Ganalon delivers an incredibly subtle and honest Antonio. His mesmerizing gaze tells you that this boy is contemplating serious existentialist questions. From his very first frame he carries the story through to the end; a breakthrough performance from a Latino with a bright career ahead of him.
The young talent across the board in the film was very delightful. They reminded me of a Little Rascals style ensemble, always getting into trouble on the schoolyard. Cástulo Guerra, who played the film’s villain Tenorio, did not present a strong enough antithesis to Ganalon. The depth of introspection in Galanon’s Antonio overshadowed any potential threat that Guerra’s Tenorio could pose.
New Mexico played a great role throughout the film as well. The film’s director of photography tells a gorgeous visual story of the llano, which is an integral part of the novel. The wide shots of the llano catch colors and hues that set the tone for the seasons and events in the story. (Director of Photography Paula Huidobro, is a mexicana from Mexico City, which is a pleasant surprise). Huidobro captures the great visual treasures of New Mexico, in turn encapsulating the magical essence of the book.
So, who is behind bringing this landmark novel to the silver screen? Executive producer Christy Walton, heiress to a significant stake of the Wal-Mart family fortune, originally read the book in the 1970s and picked it up again when her son was assigned to read it in the 6th grade. She set up Tenaja Productions Company in 2009 solely to finance an adaptation of Bless Me, Ultima. It remains the company’s only credit on IMDB.com, indicating that this is very much a passion project for the famously philanthropic Ms. Walton. As the project gained traction and rights were secured, Walton’s roster of producers tapped Carl Franklin to adapt the screenplay and direct the film. A bold choice considering Franklin is somewhat of a neophyte film director.
The film has the potential to reach the status of My Family (1995) and Selena (1997), but only if Latinos choose to exercise their buying power to watch the film on the big screen. Bless Me, Ultima introduces audiences to actors who are on the outer limits of Hollywood. If the community embraces the film, it could prove to be very important to Latinos both in Hollywood and elsewhere. I for one found it refreshing to watch a film about themes with roots deep in my identities.
Since its publication in 1972, the novel has infiltrated the literary canon as a standard of magical realism and Chicanismo. Bless Me, Ultima’s wide release into theaters is February 22nd, 2013 and will debut in more than 200 theaters across the country including Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, Houston, Denver, Tucson and San Antonio. Visit www.BlessMeUltima.com to find show times near you.
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