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Bless Me, Ultima (2013)
A Major Disappointment
The novel, which has become a staple of high-school lesson plans and thus qualifies as Great Literature, deserves all the plaudits that have been heaped upon it. I read the work for the first time a few years ago and found it very moving. Like To Kill a Mockingbird (to which it has often been compared), its deceptively simple coming-of-age tale is the prism through which we are allowed a view of a larger picture: the merging of a mystically-inclined Native American way of life and more establishmentarian (and yet, in its way, even more superstitious) Catholic Hispanic culture, as well as the impact encroaching modernity has on both. Moreover, the story explored, through the relationship between young Antonio and the wise old curandera Ultima, the meaning of the connections human beings have with one another and the natural world of which they are a part, all beautifully weaved together by the skill of the author Rudolfo Anaya. (I will also add that, when I read the novel, its simple but powerful evocation of a distant time and place, the love between a growing and inquisitive boy and the old woman who effectively serves as his grandmother, and the neo-pagan lessons she imparts all helped me through a tough time, which is certainly one of the blessings of great writing.) So one can imagine my excitement when it was announced a film version was finally in the works and now, after having seen the movie, one may also imagine my disappointment over a work that is barely a shadow of the book. While decidedly earnest and also largely faithful to the source material, the film has none of the magical beauty of the novel. Indeed, the whole enterprise seems misbegotten. I suspect Carl Franklin, a talented director who has made such fine films as One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, was the wrong choice for this project. The direction is humdrum and the script he penned is weak, beginning with the idea of having the great Al Molina narrate the story as an adult Antonio. While it's always good to see a film make liberal use of Hispanic actors, every role, other than Miriam Colon as Ultima, seems miscast. The whole movie, for lack of a better description, just lays there, possesses little if any of the wonder over life and love and nature that Anaya made come alive on the page.
In his review, the late Roger Ebert generally praised this film, stating that the movie took its time and did not, as so many other films in this day and age often do, completely dispense with subtlety and over explain everything. While I appreciate his point, I think a film can sometimes be too spare and thus too obscure. It was a mistake, I think, to focus so much on young Antonio and his sometimes confused child's eye view of the world. It would have been enlightening, particularly for those who haven't read the novel, to see more of Ultima and her "magic," her pagan-infused Catholic teachings.
A completely re-written script would have well served this project and the fuller and more subtly complex film that might have resulted would have come closer to capturing what the author conveyed. I missed seeing that golden fish in the river.