Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bless Me Ultima

Carl Franklin is one of those guys who's been around forever. His name sounds vaguely familiar, sure, but probably because it's an All-American kind of name. And he's one of those actors where you say "Oh, that guy!" because you saw him on "The Rockford Files" or "The A-Team" or maybe in his last acting roles on "Roseanne". Then you wonder "Whatever happened to him?"

Well, he moved behind the camera and became a director, contributing to "Rome" and most recently "House of Cards", but also doing some noteworthy (if low key) features like One True Thing and now Bless Me, Ultima.

Didn't know what this was going in. The reviews were tepid (RT 71%/81%, audiences liking more than critics) and I actually thought it was a Spanish-language flick so I didn't take The Flower (it was kind of late, too). A shame, perhaps, since I think she would've liked it.

They call it a "coming of age" film, but since the lead character goes from about 7 to 9, that seems a little young to actually, you know, age. But I guess it applies, because it's the story of a boy, Antonio (Luke Ganalon) as he learns about sin, God, the Church, Good and Evil, and some general family turmoil mixed in as well.

The catalyst for these changes and observations is the titular Ultima, a curandera (shaman) who comes to stay with the family. It's not really clear if she's a relation or not. "Ultima" is also apparently a somewhat disrespectful (or perhaps socially dangerous) name, although I don't know why, and she doesn't seem to mind that Antonio calls her that.

It's just after WWII in a small town in New Mexico, and he is the youngest of six with the next oldest being his pre-teen sisters, and the oldest being three brothers who come back from fighting the war. Antonio is about to go into the first grade, but he spends the last weeks of his summer gathering herbs with Ultima.

The action starts when a family sends for Ultima because their son is dying, and nothing seems to be helping. The curandera exists in a kind of gray area—the town is dominated by its Catholic church on one side (and its whorehouse on the other)—and in this WWII-era, she's simultaneously dismissed, feared and respected.

In this case, the son was apparently wandering through the woods and came across three young girls (brujas) practicing witchcraft. Ultima offers to lift the curse, but warns that altering a man's fate can have dire consequences. Of course, the family agrees.

What happens next is interesting: It's a completely non-ironic, non-ambiguous curse removal, complete with sorta voodoo doll totems that saves the sick kid's life.

I mention this because I have never ever seen such a thing in a non-horror film. Not just a non-horror film but what is primarily a realistic film.

I liked it.

This curse removal ends up rebounding back on the three witches, daughters of the town's Bad Guy, Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), who sets out to destroy Ultima (and old time "witch tests" even come up!).

Meanwhile, Antonio does well in school, is respectful in church (but very confused as far as Ultima's status under God), receives communion, and argues with his friends about God, at least in the fashion of grade school boys, which is to say shallowly and blasphemously, but not without insight. There are family troubles, a glimpse into puberty and mortality, and a multitude of examples of human frailty.

The Boy and I really liked it. Good, interesting characters acted well and believably, with a lot going on. I think a lot of the criticism is aimed at a lack of focus, but I consider that misplaced. The story is very much about all the things Antonio experiences that takes him out of the innocence (or perhaps ignorance) of childhood, with the over-arching battle between Tenorio and Ultima providing a backdrop for him to see a wide-range of good, evil, and good-but-flawed.

It was almost simple at points, but there are many layers to it. You could just watch it, or you could interpret it. Nicely done, Mr. Franklin. It's also beautifully shot by Paula Huidobro. I also liked that the score (by Mark Killian) stayed away from the Mexican clich├ęs.

This is an easy one to recommend.

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