Based on the novel by Rudolfo Ayana, Bless Me, Ultima, is set in the Post WWII world of New Mexico. Director Carl Franklin films this world with a steady hand, moving along gracefully, not rushing anywhere or hurrying toward any particular conclusion. Typically, a movie will set up a protagonist, a goal, and a way to get there. Once it gets there, the movie fades to black and that is that. Bless Me, Ultima is not one of those movies and embraces the novel’s meandering qualities. At times it matters little where it is going. It’s more concerned with noticing what happens along the way.
Our protagonist, Antonio (Luke Ganalon) is a young boy living in New Mexico with his father, mother, and sisters. His three older brothers all heeded the call and the opportunity of the draft and have left the nest. They will return, but only to leave again. The Father is also restless and dreams of California. This is a coming of age story for Antonio, but also for America, for this family, and for Hispanic culture. The war changed the nation and the people. Too young to directly be affected by the war, Antonio feels its after effects in a variety of ways.
The nation, the people, and Antonio may be changing, but there is one who is trying to root Antonio in tradition. Ultima (Miriam Colon-giving an excellent performance) has been invited to stay with the family, and uses this opportunity to teach Antonio the ways of her ancestors. It ranges widely from how to thank a plant prior to digging it up to banishing a witches curse from a sick man. Ultima is more shamanic than a bruja, but is labeled a witch by the townsfolk who just don’t understand. Does Antonio understand? That might be the central question, because how Antonio sees Ultima might give an idea of what he sees in store for himself.
Antonio attends a Catholic school and he quickly becomes fascinated with the idea of confession. What power a Priest holds over his parish! If you commit a mortal sin, you go to Hell. If you confess your sin to the Priest, he absolves you, and you get to go to Heaven. Ergo, the man with the power is clearly the Priest. Just as Ultima saves the man cursed by witches, the Priest saves those cursed by sin. There is a moment where the children want to play a game and appoint Antonio to play the role of the Priest so they other kids can confess. Antonio takes to the role immediately, and absolves to other students, one who confesses and one who refuses to. Never stated in the movie, but hinted at is Antonio’s realization that this connection between the role that a priest plays and the role that Ultima plays.
Antonio is wise beyond his years, possibly because of Ultima’s teaching, or possibly because there are those that just are. He asks his father why there is evil in the world, but he doesn’t casually ask, he asks because he wants to know his answer. Antonio’s Father gives one of the best explanations of evil possible. What people call evil really isn’t evil, it’s just something that is misunderstood. Fear is the motivation of things misunderstood. There is a real resonance in his words. When a person is asked how to solve a problem, their first suggestion is to get the two parties together to talk it out. The idea is that if they understood where the other was coming from, there would be sympathy and understanding. To borrow a phrase from Atticus Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
If there is any question of what path Antonio is on, then it is answered in one poignant scene. On the way to Antonio’s school, he must cross a wooden bridge. While crossing, one of Antonio’s classmates comes running from nowhere to run right pass Antonio no matter how hard he tries or as fast as he can run. Then one day Antonio is returning home when he sees the classmate walking, not running, along the bridge. This is his moment, and he lays down some rubber and passes the classmate. Finally! He stops at the end of the bridge and turns to see the classmate. What he sees is another coming of age story in progress, the classmate is talking with a girl. The classmate didn’t even notice Antonio run past. The smile drains from Antonio’s face. Is it because no one saw him win, or is it because he now realizes that a path along the priesthood will be lonely and without the physically comforts of love?
There are other problems in this community. The youth are leaving for greener pastures, and as such, traditions die and families are spread out. The war ruins many, drink and drunkenness take a few more. There is hope though, and the hope is Antonio. He is the bridge between the ways of the past and tradition and the future of the society, exemplified by The Church. Ultima dies protecting Antonio, and the last thing Antonio asks of her is in the title. Her last act is to bless Antonio, and with her passing, she passes on the tradition to Antonio. Antonio will go on, and probably make a very good Priest. He won’t be able to correct every problem of the world, absolve every sin, but he’ll have a good go at it, and hopefully he’ll pass down some of Ultima’s teaching along the way.