If my life doesn’t turn out quite the way I’d have liked, I might blame it on my happy, relatively uneventful childhood. I didn’t get adopted by a pair of aging siblings on Prince Edward Island, didn’t get to play around bombed-out sections of London during the Blitz, never swam with the whales in New Zealand. Growing up sure looks like it’s a lot more exciting, and more meaningful, in the movies.
Bless Me, Ultima is just the sort of coming-of-age tale that makes me feel my own Generic-American upbringing — devoid of any particular ethnic flavor — was colorless. Which reminds me, yet again, how grateful I am to live in a world and an era overflowing with stories that allow us to peer into lives that we’ll never ourselves lead. That’s true even when I wish a story were told more effectively than is this film.
Adapted from a 1972 novel now often taught in schools, Bless Me, Ultima, is about a boy named Tony, the youngest member of a Chicano family in 1940s rural New Mexico. One summer an elderly woman called Ultima comes to live in his home. She’s a curandera (a sort of healer or shaman in Latin American culture) and considered an outcast by some who believe she practices witchcraft that conflicts with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Tony is a good boy, with a deep faith and desire to obey all he’s been told about God by his mother and priest. Yet he’s also drawn to the animistic teachings of Ultima, who takes him along as she gathers medicinal plants from the earth and drives an evil spirit from an ailing man.
Tony believes in a strict line between good and evil, and in the dangers of sin. When he finds members of his own family indulging in what he knows are sinful pursuits, and when Ultima (whom he knows to be good) is accused of being evil because of her practices, his worldview becomes much more muddled. He looks forward to his first communion, after his mother tells him that consuming the Eucharist will make him one with God. He decides that simple act will bring with it the moral clarity for which he yearns. He is, of course, disappointed afterwards.
Further danger is injected into the tale after Tony witnesses a murder by one of the most powerful men in town. This cartoonish villain (who rides his horse while dressed all in black for much of the movie) is also the father of three daughters reputed to be witches, one of the film’s many magical-realist flourishes. These elements never meshed well with the more effective and straightforward matters of Tony’s family life and dealings with his school chums.
Bless Me, Ultima loses focus. Instead of spending so much time futilely hoping to mesmerize us with fantastical mysteries — like whether Ultima has the ability to transform into an owl — I wish the filmmakers had sought to deliver a more interesting meditation on the realist question at the story’s heart: why is there evil in this world?