Thursday, March 21, 2013

Bless Me, Ultima, or "Searching questions everyone should reflect upon at the age of reason."

I love it when films make me think.

So much of what I consume, entertainment-wise, is often just a distraction, sound and fury signifying nothing. Probably ninety-five percent of what I watch, read, or hear is pure popcorn. Sure, I enjoy it immensely when the entertainment is skillfully and artfully passed on to me, but over the years I have grown desensitized. It is a rare film that tickles my brain.

Bless Me, Ultima is one of those films. To explain why, I think I need to give a bit of personal context.

You see, I am what I would probably term, on a good day, as a recovering Catholic. Yes, I've lost faith in the church and Christian spirituality as a whole, but still find plenty of moments of individual awe and personal spiritual connection to the universe at large. 

That said, it pleases me to remember the halls of my youth and reminisce over the cultural idioms that are very much present in the film as the main character, Antonio, is torn between his growing questions concerning faith and religion with his local Catholic diocese, his teachings under Ultima and her white magic, and empathy and human connection as a whole. 

I love the contrast and the journey of self-reflection that Antonio takes over the length of the film, first in tepid fear and awe over Ultima's mysterious powers, then with a kindled courage and wisdom as he begins to digest the conflicting concepts he is presented with from the Church, Ultima, and his community.

This is the kind of film that I think every adolescent should see, particularly those who have grown up Catholic like I did. It's also a film that I would recommend to adults with no personal connection as it is a wonderful peek into Latino-American culture. Even as it deals with magic and spirituality, family and tradition, duty and honor, it does so in a way that asks questions and forces the viewer to think.

And it does ask questions... hard ones.

Now, I freely admit that it's rough in places. It could've used some stronger cinematography and a little trimming around the edges when it comes to direction and editing, but the writing is superb. I'm sure that probably has something to do with the source material, but I also think Carl Franklin, who both directed and wrote the screenplay based on Rudolfo Anaya's classic novel, had something to do with it.

There also was rarely a moment when the acting pulled me out. With seemingly little effort, the production has attracted and made vibrant use of quite a few talented Latin actors and actresses. There were occasional bits of dialogue and flavor where delivery felt forced, but it only served to deepen the authenticity of the film. Sure, I knew they were acting and my suspension of disbelief was stretched, but to see the mannerisms and culture run free from cliché and stereotype, I was very happy.

I think my only real problems with the film come from the sense of time. It never really feels that over a year has passed in the film, even though the seasons are accentuated. Despite young Antonio's gradual maturation, it feels only like a few weeks of an actual shoot instead of the full depth and measure of many, many months passing Tony by as he is guided by Ultima.

Overall, though, the film is superb, with very few flaws. If you have a chance, I recommend seeing it while it's still in theaters. If you cannot make it, buy the film.

I'm serious.

It is films like this that both preserve cultural heritage while provoking deep and meaningful conversations both internally and with others. It is a film that I wish to share both with my own circle of friends and family and the community at large, and I hope that it is added to the curriculum as a companion piece to the novel that I know has been a major title on regional middle and high school reading lists.

If and when I have children, someday, I hope to watch Bless Me, Ultima with them and share in its moving snapshot of a New Mexico of yesteryear.

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