Judge Jason Panella wonders what Bless Me, Ultron would be like.
"I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful."
Rudulfo Anaya's coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima was a smash when it was released in 1972, a genuine depiction of the struggles and joys of a young Mexican-American boy finding his place in his culture. Bless Me, Ultima, the film adaptation by Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress), moves Anaya's story to the screen gracefully. It's a quiet, understated film that captures the juxtaposition of faith, cruelty, and community.
Set during the Second World War, Bless Me, Ultima stars Luke Ganalon as Antonio, a wide-eyed young boy who lives with his family in rural New Mexico. Antonio's family welcomes the elderly Ultima (Miriam Colon, Scarface) to live in their home. Ultima, Antonio's sisters whisper, may or may not be a witch. At the very least, she's considered wise by the community, and seems to have answers for things when others do not. Antonio and Ultima quickly bond, and the boy quickly begins to learn from the elder as she tries to make things right in the village. Antonio begins to experience the tensions in his life—between his mother's deep Catholic faith and the myths of the Chicano culture, between the knowledge of his people and the academic intelligence at which he excels, and between peaceful resolutions and the more violent alternative favored by many in the community.
The film asks some big, existential questions but really seems to work best when it's focusing on Antonio's story. Which, thankfully, Franklin does for the majority of the film. Some of the film's best scenes involve Antonio and his three older brothers, all recently discharged from the fighting overseas—the boy had idealized his brothers and quickly realizes that growing up on the battlefield has changed them in fundamental ways. This realization quietly washes over Antonio, and Franklin does a great job capturing it on screen. The cast is impressive, working on nuances almost to the point of them underselling their roles. Ganalon as Antonio is a blank slate in a lot of ways, but his eyes tend to tell what's going on in his head. Benito Martinez (The Shield) and Dolores Heredia (Get the Gringo) are also excellent as Antonio's parents; the former plays the gregarious father with a hint of self-aware sadness that's especially impressive.
Sony Pictures drops a serviceable package for Bless Me, Ultima. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation isn't outstanding, but it gets the visual message across just fine. The Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks work a little better, as quiet as the film is—dialogue and ambient sounds are placed nicely and come through loud and clear. For extras, Sony gives some trailers, if that's your sort of thing.
An interesting, moving look at a child learning about the blessings and curses of a culture. Not guilty, Ultima.
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