Bless Me, Ultima: Is She a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?
Is she a good witch or a bad witch? That is the question swirling around the title character in Bless Me, Ultima, based on the 1972 novel by Rudolfo Anaya. Set in a Chicano farm community in 1940s New Mexico, Bless Me, Ultima is packed with stock themes from the Latino/Chicano literature that was all the rage in the 1970s and '80s: a little magic, family blood feuds, coming-of-age paroxysms, characters who are more symbols than personalities, and the three-way moral tension between the Catholic Church, the town sinners (in this case, drinkers and a rural brothel), and the folk healing/witchiness that rotates on its own axis of good and evil.
Ultima (Miriam Colon) is an old curandera who has come to spend the last days of her life at the dusty, humble Márez y Luna homestead. Most people hold her at a distance out of fear and respect, but little Antonio Márez y Luna (Luke Ganalon) becomes her pupil, ward, and friend. She teaches him how to harvest powerful herbs, "listen to the land," and other classic folk-healer stuff, while little Antonio drinks it all in with wide, brown, innocent eyes. Director Carl Franklin's cameras seem just as wide-eyed and innocent, with lingering shots of the landscape, portentous expressions illuminated by candlelight, and so on.
In the process of healing a cursed man, Ultima winds up waging spiritual warfare against three witchy sisters, which divides the community. The sisters' (wealthy, powerful) father raises a pitchfork-and-torches mob to go get "la bruja." The blood feud wraps its tentacles around the whole town, especially the virtuous drunkard Narciso (Joaquín Cosio), who loves his booze but is also braver and more clearheaded in a crisis than most of his fellow villagers. In a film full of routine performances, Cosio brings a wild-eyed exuberance to Narciso, giving all of his scenes an extra lift.
Bless Me, Ultima is a young-adult adaptation of a young-adult novel, with familiar themes and medium-grade (and occasionally lethargic) filmmaking. It has no fatal flaws, but it probably won't go down in the canon with To Kill a Mockingbird, either.