MRR Review: "Bless Me, Ultima"

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Set in New Mexico during WWII, this drama film is centered around the relationship between a young man and an elderly medicine woman who helps him contend with the battle between good and evil that rages in his village.
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MRR Review: "Bless Me, Ultima"

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 22, 2013
Directed by: Carl Franklin
Genre: Drama/War

For moviegoers who prefer deep, thoughtful films, "Bless Me, Ultima" is the perfect choice. Starring Luke Ganalon, Joseph A. Garcia, and Miriam Colon, the film tells the story of a boy and a magical medicine woman. With its sentimental narrative and mystical subject matter, "Bless Me, Ultima" is certain to stand out from other films.

The movie opens with Antonio Marez (Luke Ganalon), a young boy who lives with his family in New Mexico in the 1940s. One day, an elderly medicine woman named Ultima (Miriam Colon) arrives in the village and moves in with Antonio's family. As Antonio and Ultima get to know one another, they develop a close bond that is similar to the connection between a grandmother and her grandchild.

In time, Antonio discovers that Ultima possesses healing powers that verge on the supernatural. During her time in the village, Ultima wanders from place to place, offering assistance to suffering people by casting out demons and engaging in timeless ceremonies. As she helps people find peace and health, many of Antonio's neighbors and friends come to believe she is a witch. When the town busybodies make it their goal to discredit Ultima and run her out of town, Antonio must discern for himself what is true and what is not.

"Bless Me, Ultima" is a coming-of-age story. When his beloved Ultima is attacked by high-ranking townspeople, Antonio's beliefs are shaken to the core. At a young age, he discovers the people in power are not always wise or kind, and as the story progresses and violence unfolds, the young boy learns about the true nature of people in his village and how to stand up for himself and the things he holds dear.

"Bless Me, Ultima" is based on the novel by Rudolfo Anaya, which was released in 1972. The book has been a source of controversy since its release, particularly among religious groups that take issue with its portrayal of witchcraft. Despite its controversial subject matter, the book has a sweet, nostalgic aura that evokes imagery of decades past. Director Carl Franklin has managed to translate this to the big screen, and the film shines as a result.

The setting in "Bless Me, Ultima" is one of the movie's driving forces. Franklin uses the dry, dusty New Mexican desert to set the mood of the film. In a land where ancient rites have been practiced for centuries, Ultima's rituals do not seem out of place. As she and Antonio walk the desert paths in search of healing plants, the landscape creates a sense of calm and mysticism that pervades the film, and violence and conflicting religious beliefs are much more jarring against this peaceful backdrop.

As Antonio, Luke Ganalon bears a heavy emotional burden. His character is only six years old when the film opens, and he must endure a barrage of life-altering events. Ganalon handles his role with grace, portraying Antonio with wisdom far beyond his years. His expressive eyes convey an impressive range of emotion, and his serene smile draws viewers in.

Ganalon is the perfect complement for Miriam Colon, who has been active on stage and screen for decades. Colon perfectly captures Ultima's calm spirit and mystical powers, convincing viewers that she is, in fact, capable of healing the sick. Ganalon and Colon are an appealing pair. Although the pairing of a young boy and an old woman is not standard movie fare, it plays beautifully on the big screen. The touching relationship between the two is the central force behind the film's plot.

Throughout "Bless Me, Ultima," Franklin demonstrates remarkable skill, both in his screenplay writing and directing abilities. The movie shines in its quiet moments, when the characters express true emotions and observe the world changing around them. Ganalon and Colon are also at their best during these introspective scenes, which offer audiences the chance to breathe and reflect on the world of the film. Although the film also deals with larger themes, these quiet moments tie the narrative together.

Overall, "Bless Me, Ultima" is a thoughtful, well-executed film. The screenplay stays true to the original spirit of the novel, which will please fans of Anaya. Franklin brings his own considerable skill to the film, bringing to life the spectacular New Mexican desert and a typical small town in the 1940s. As a result, "Bless Me, Ultima" is sure to please moviegoers of all types, from history buffs to literature fans.

Rating: 4 out of 5