Rudolfo Anaya’s beloved 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima—like its new big-screen adaptation—is set in New Mexico in 1944, in a culture in transition. The film stars Luke Ganalon as a young boy living with his religious mother and big-hearted father in the desert of the American southwest. Then the family adds a new member: a healer/witch named Ultima, played by Miriam Colon. Ganalon joins Colon as she travels around the territory, performing ancient rituals to cast out demons and cure the sick. Around the same time, he starts school, and discovers that his studiousness sets him apart from his classmates, who are more interested in cutting up and chasing girls. There are multiple conflicts here: between different kinds of faith, between modernism and tradition, and between the lives of native people and a larger world that seeks to marginalize or assimilate them. It’s no accident that the novel and film take place in New Mexico—a state whose name suggests both a rejection and a reinvention.
Bless Me, Ultima was directed and adapted by Carl Franklin, a solid dramatic filmmaker whose best-known movies (One False Move, Devil In A Blue Dress, and Out Of Time) are all a decade or more in the past. This isn’t really a “comeback” film for Franklin, but it does benefit from his assuredness. Anaya’s novel is short, but packed with incident and backstory, and Franklin finds a clear path through it. He follows the lead of director Robert Mulligan and writer Horton Foote, whose adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird let a child’s naïve observances and everyday trials steer the action. The larger questions raised by Bless Me, Ultima—such as the film’s opening line, “Why is there evil in the world?”—hang too heavily, straining to make a personal story more universal. The movie is at its best when it’s at its smallest: when Ganalon quietly watches Colon coax a dying young man into vomiting up his “curse,” or when Ganalon is getting laughed out of his classroom because he has a burrito in his lunchbox instead of a sandwich. Lots of films (and lots of books) have charted a boy’s path to manhood. Bless Me, Ultima is special because it’s about this boy, in this time and place, where his peers and elders are rushing to label him before he can forge his own identity.