This weekend Bless Me, Ultima opened in select theaters across the nation. It is based on the award-winning—but controversial—classic novel by the highly acclaimed Latino author, Rudolfo Anaya. Despite having sold more than 300,000 copies since it was first published in 1972, the controversial book has been banned by groups in several states earning it a spot on the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list.
This movie stays remarkably true to the book and beautifully tells the coming-of-age story of young Antonio Marez. The youngest of six children, Antonio takes after his mother’s side of the family. The Lunas are hardworking farmers who value family and God above all else. Influenced by her strong Catholic beliefs, Antonio’s mother takes pride in his academic success and hopes her son will become a Catholic priest.
But Antonio’s life is forever changed when the mysterious curandera, Ultima, comes to live out the rest of her life with his family. He and Ultima immediately forge a close friendship, and Ultima begins to teach him about the spirituality found in nature, the curative properties of plants, and most importantly, the ultimate power that good has over evil. However, her ability to heal and mysterious ways earn her the reputation of being a witch by the community who both wants and fears her. Antonio struggles to defend Ultima from the accusations his friends and community make against her, risking his life on more than one occasion to warn her of danger.
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Both the arrival of Ultima and his friendship with a young boy named Florence lead Antonio to question the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Florence has had a traumatic childhood and does not believe in God. As Antonio awaits his First Communion with the understanding that he will then become one with God, he hopes to have all his questions answered as he talks directly with God. But Antonio leaves the church disillusioned and with his unanswered questions still in his heart.
For the most part, the movie is a visual treat, with its beautiful landscapes and culture-infused imagery of the Southwest. The period piece transports you back in time to New Mexico during World War II, but many of the issues could easily be experienced today. The book and movie are rich in the themes that traditionally permeate the Mexican-American culture: family and friends, good and evil, life and death, farming the land and seeking one’s fortune in the city, religion, spiritualism…it is all there.
The movie is full of fantastic actors including Joaquin Cosio, Dolores Heredia, Benito Martinez, and Castulo Guerra. The talented and elegant Miriam Colon, who plays the part of Ultima, gives an outstanding performance. Colon’s serenity, determination, and aged beauty all combine to perfectly capture the strength and power of the curandera as she draws life from the Earth and fights evil with her knowledge and belief in all that is good.
But perhaps the star of the show is Luke Ganalon, the young actor who does such an incredible job of playing the role of Antonio Marez. His honest, sincere, and boyish looks are sure to pluck the heartstrings of most Latina moms. I was reminded of my own son and so many other little boys I knew when I was growing up. Ganalon does a phenomenal job of bringing Antonio’s character to life.
To see if Bless Me, Ultima is playing in a theater near you, visit the movie’s official website.