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BLESS ME, ULTIMA – The Review

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bless me ultima

BLESS ME, ULTIMA is an interesting blend of film genres. On one hand it’s a nostalgic coming of age drama set in that golden era of the 1940’s similar to SUMMER OF ’42 and A CHRISTMAS STORY. It recalls that simpler time that was not quite as idyllic as many remember. The film’s also a look at culture clashes with this Mexican family settling in the US in search of a better life. Most of all ULTIMA is about different forms of faith. The Catholic church is a large part of this family’s life, but they still have a belief in the old ways. Namely the supernatural. They speak of it in hushed tones, whispering of witches and curses and demons. All these themes are explored in this story of a boy and a wonderous time that seems so long ago.

Antonio (Luke Ganalon) is young boy of seven or eight living with his family in a New Mexico village in 1944. His three older brothers are overseas fighting the war. Everything is fairly quiet with his two older sisters and his mother and father. Everything changes when his grandmother Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to live with them. The young boy and aged women forge an immediate bond despite the rumors that she practices witchcraft. The two enjoy the last weeks of Summer together as she teaches him about the healing gifts provided by nature. Ultima’s skills are finally requested when Antonio’s uncle pleads with her to lift a life-draining curse placed on his brother. This pits her against the gruff, violent Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), the father of three daughters accused of practicing the dark arts. The family must deal with his threats along with internal conflicts when the older brothers return.  Soon Antonio begins his schooling with a desire to eventually become a priest. But can he protect his wise beloved grandmother from Tenorio’s evil schemes?

This lyrical tale is really built on the relationship of Antonio and Ultima. Ganalon has wide eyes that register amazement at the magical events happening in his dusty backyard. These eyes also glimpse the horrors, like the tracking of a returned vet and the showdowns with Tenorio. He also works well with the other young actors especially in dealing with one classmate who questions his life and religon. Colon brings many decades of screen acting to her role as the gentle, Earth-mother. She seem like a sweet granny, but she becomes a fierce lioness when her family is threatened, particularly by the excellent Guerra as the sinister Tenorio. There’s also great work by Joaquin Cosio as the tragic town drunk Narciso who is able to summon courage to protect his friends. Benito Martinez is also compelling as Antonio’s father, whose dreams of California vineyards are not shared by his offsprings. It’s an impressive acting ensemble.

Said ensemble is led by veteran actor/screenwriter/director Carl Franklin, who first became known for his gritty crime thrillers ONE FALSE MOVE and DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS. This is a bit closer in spirit to his later family “dramedy” ONE TRUE THING. Perhaps because of his many years in front of the camera, Franklin is able to get expert work from the actors. Most of all he establishes a dreamy, everyday feeling to the proceedings. There’s no flashy effects work during some spell-casting scenes which somehow makes these occurences more magical. He is able to use some of his experiences in action flicks to give a scene of urgency to some of the altercations, especially in the showdowns with Tenorio. Franklin’s done most of his work for the small screen lately, so it’s great to see him doing great feature work again with this gentle tale of family and faith. This tender story makes us wish we grew up with someone as mystical, magical, and maternal as Ultima.

3.5 Out of 5 Stars

bless me ultima poster

 

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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