Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: Bless Me, Ultima

An offbeat slice of Americana will intrigue thoughtful moviegoers.

Feb 22, 2013

-By Stephen Farber


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1372198-Bless_Me_Ultima_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Spirituality has been making something of a comeback in recent movies, as evidenced by the enormous worldwide success of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. A keen interest in religious and spiritual questions was one of the things that accounted for the popularity of Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima, though the book was not without its controversial elements. Some conservative Christian groups tried to have the book banned because of its interest in witchcraft and superstition. Carl Franklin’s uneven but affecting film version of the novel has already proved successful in regional openings in the Southwest, and Arenas Entertainment is opening the film more widely in an effort to reach out to underserved Hispanic audiences. The undertaking is risky, with box-office response uncertain, but the film will reward adventurous viewers.

This material would never have attracted a major studio, so Christy Walton—heir to the Wal-Mart fortune—financed the picture herself, not because of any desire to become a movie mogul but simply because of her passion for the novel. She allowed the filmmakers to work without major stars or obvious commercial hooks added to the story. Although the film doesn’t always sustain dramatic impact, its fidelity to the spirit of the novel is impressive.

The story takes place in New Mexico in the 1940s and is told from the point of view of Antonio Marez (newcomer Luke Ganalon). His three older brothers are fighting in the Second World War, and the family is struggling, but when a medicine woman named Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to stay with the family, she initiates turmoil within this tightknit community. Ultima has healing powers, but she also arouses deep suspicion from some villagers who consider her to be a witch. She and Antonio share a deep bond that only intensifies when Ultima is targeted by know-nothing forces in their town.

Viewers might see some parallels to another coming-of-age story set in a small town, To Kill a Mockingbird. The villain of the piece is reminiscent of the Southern bigot who threatened the children in Mockingbird, and Ultima could be seen as a more ambiguous female version of the wise Atticus Finch. These parallels indicate the primal appeal of this story of a child trying to sort out positive from negative influences in a sometimes benighted community. It may be that Anaya lacks Harper Lee’s storytelling flair, or it could be that Franklin’s adaptation fails to hit all the necessary dramatic beats. The film is more a collection of vignettes than a narrative with forward momentum, and this means there are stretches that lag. The script also relies too heavily on voiceover narration by the older Antonio (Alfred Molina).

Fortunately, the period is beautifully evoked by Franklin, cinematographer Paula Huidobro and designer David Bomba. Franklin has not made many feature films in recent years, but the best moments here remind us of his sensitivity toward isolated and misunderstood people. There’s a lyrical feeling to many of the scenes, and the spiritual curiosity of the young protagonist never seems forced. Although the film is meant to appeal to family audiences, it doesn’t shy away from showing the harsher elements of life in this impoverished town.

Ganalon shines in his first major role, and the scenes with his young classmates have considerable charm. Colon, who has appeared in many different movies for five decades, brings soulful stature to her portrayal of a tough and mysterious woman destined to be misunderstood. The actress performs with astringent force and not the slightest hint of sentimentality. Castulo Guerra as the antagonist is appropriately menacing. This film doesn’t always unfold gracefully, but it builds to a poignant conclusion, and it evokes a vanished way of life with tenderness and restraint.
--The Hollywood Reporter


Film Review: Bless Me, Ultima

An offbeat slice of Americana will intrigue thoughtful moviegoers.

Feb 22, 2013

-By Stephen Farber


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1372198-Bless_Me_Ultima_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Spirituality has been making something of a comeback in recent movies, as evidenced by the enormous worldwide success of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. A keen interest in religious and spiritual questions was one of the things that accounted for the popularity of Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima, though the book was not without its controversial elements. Some conservative Christian groups tried to have the book banned because of its interest in witchcraft and superstition. Carl Franklin’s uneven but affecting film version of the novel has already proved successful in regional openings in the Southwest, and Arenas Entertainment is opening the film more widely in an effort to reach out to underserved Hispanic audiences. The undertaking is risky, with box-office response uncertain, but the film will reward adventurous viewers.

This material would never have attracted a major studio, so Christy Walton—heir to the Wal-Mart fortune—financed the picture herself, not because of any desire to become a movie mogul but simply because of her passion for the novel. She allowed the filmmakers to work without major stars or obvious commercial hooks added to the story. Although the film doesn’t always sustain dramatic impact, its fidelity to the spirit of the novel is impressive.

The story takes place in New Mexico in the 1940s and is told from the point of view of Antonio Marez (newcomer Luke Ganalon). His three older brothers are fighting in the Second World War, and the family is struggling, but when a medicine woman named Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to stay with the family, she initiates turmoil within this tightknit community. Ultima has healing powers, but she also arouses deep suspicion from some villagers who consider her to be a witch. She and Antonio share a deep bond that only intensifies when Ultima is targeted by know-nothing forces in their town.

Viewers might see some parallels to another coming-of-age story set in a small town, To Kill a Mockingbird. The villain of the piece is reminiscent of the Southern bigot who threatened the children in Mockingbird, and Ultima could be seen as a more ambiguous female version of the wise Atticus Finch. These parallels indicate the primal appeal of this story of a child trying to sort out positive from negative influences in a sometimes benighted community. It may be that Anaya lacks Harper Lee’s storytelling flair, or it could be that Franklin’s adaptation fails to hit all the necessary dramatic beats. The film is more a collection of vignettes than a narrative with forward momentum, and this means there are stretches that lag. The script also relies too heavily on voiceover narration by the older Antonio (Alfred Molina).

Fortunately, the period is beautifully evoked by Franklin, cinematographer Paula Huidobro and designer David Bomba. Franklin has not made many feature films in recent years, but the best moments here remind us of his sensitivity toward isolated and misunderstood people. There’s a lyrical feeling to many of the scenes, and the spiritual curiosity of the young protagonist never seems forced. Although the film is meant to appeal to family audiences, it doesn’t shy away from showing the harsher elements of life in this impoverished town.

Ganalon shines in his first major role, and the scenes with his young classmates have considerable charm. Colon, who has appeared in many different movies for five decades, brings soulful stature to her portrayal of a tough and mysterious woman destined to be misunderstood. The actress performs with astringent force and not the slightest hint of sentimentality. Castulo Guerra as the antagonist is appropriately menacing. This film doesn’t always unfold gracefully, but it builds to a poignant conclusion, and it evokes a vanished way of life with tenderness and restraint.
--The Hollywood Reporter
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Small Time
Film Review: Small Time

You might not buy a used car from the guys in Small Time, but you will enjoy the movie about their exploits, even their exploitations (of others). More »

Fading Gigolo
Film Review: Fading Gigolo

Some top screen talent gets lost in the silliness surrounding the amorous adventures of an unlikely gigolo and his even more unlikely pimp, with writer/director/actor John Turturro the shtupper “ho” co-starring with Woody Allen as the mercenary shtup-enabler. Yarmulkes off to Turturro’s brave but deeply ill-conceived comedic foray into Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community and other alien territory. More »

A Promise
Film Review: A Promise

Handsomely filmed but wan period romance. More »

Final Member
Film Review: The Final Member

Breezy documentary about the aging owner of a small Icelandic museum dedicated to penises and his quest for one last, coveted exhibit is a charmer, thanks to the warmth and sly sense of humor the protagonist brings to his unusual hobby. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Transcendence
Film Review: Transcendence

Johnny Depp is an idealistic researcher whose consciousness is uploaded into an artificial intelligence in this slick techno-thriller with delusions of seriousness from Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer. More »

Draft Day
Film Review: Draft Day

Pro football manager faces crises on the most important day of his career in a well-tooled vehicle for Kevin Costner. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here