Part of what makes Bless Me, Ultima so uniquely pleasurable is its very uniqueness, in the context of the usual-suspect elements of American cinema, starting with its mystical-waxing title. Here, writer/director Carl Franklin takes us, firmly but gently, into the world of a Latino farming community in New Mexico, circa the mid-1940s and tells the tale of a boy and his wise, shamanistic grandmother, Ultima (Miriam Colon), and the trouble and magic she incurs. Conflicts do arise, involving witchly sisters and vengeful, gun-wielding parties, but much of the film proceeds in a warm, wistful way, along narrative and ethnic routes seldom traveled in Hollywood.
Based on the most popular of Chicano novels, published in 1972, author Rudolfo Anaya’s fictionalized reminiscence of his own childhood, the film unfolds with a kind of tale-spinning glow, in which sentimental remembrance meets naturalism, tinged by magic realism. At the center of the story is our bright young protagonist’s close relationship with his mystical elder as she embarks on such healing arts as helping a young, cursed man to “cheat death,” for $40. But the story also functions as a more general coming-of-age saga about our young hero (nicely played by Luke Ganalon), who also grapples with the admixture of native, medicinal spirituality and the strict regimens of Catholicism. At one point, his life-hardened atheistic young friend tells him, “If you don’t believe in God, there’s no hell to go to.”
As director, Franklin keeps a relaxed and casual hand, sometimes succumbing to the temptation to sentimentalize, a forgivable sin in this family-friendly fare. Shooting in the lyrical landscape of Abiquiú, New Mexico, and lavishing on the ’40s-era period details, he also relishes the sense of atmosphere found in his previous neo-film noir projects, Devil in a Blue Dress and One False Move, while taking us to a place, time, and social microcosm far from the madding, dulling crowd of what passes through our multiplexes on a regular basis. By film’s end, we suspend disbelief and root for Ultima, and we bask in the understanding that the narrator’s voice is that of a successful writer in the making.