Friday, November 16, 2012

Movie Review: Bless Me Ultima

movie screenshot
Published at ABQJournal.com
Last night I headed down to the Regal with Cay in tow to watch Bless Me Ultima.  The book was perhaps one of the most important books I'd read during my college years, and the one that heavily influenced my deeper studies into adolescent Chicano Literature (the term "Chicano Literature" itself is controversial, being embraced by many Chicano writers and rejected as "not PC" by a smattering of others)

The book has been banned in several schools due to the reference to "witchcraft".

In the story, Ultima is a curendara:  a natural healer (but there are undertones of magic). There are accusations that she's a bruja, an evil magic user, and this conflict between those who hate and fear her and those who love her is the central action in this film.

After viewing the film, Cay gushed "this has got to be one of the best films I've ever seen." She was surprised when I said "meh".

The cinematography of the film is amazing.  You get an absolute feel for the land in New Mexico, sweeping views of the scrub, the hills, and amazing panoramic views. You feel New Mexico watching the film... which successfully gives you some idea of one of the concepts in the story: the relationship with the land that comes from the Lunas side of Tony's family.

I went into the movie knowing that they couldn't fully relate the conflicts between the cultures in the story.  I knew that there would be insufficient contrast between Tony's Catholic faith, his grandmother Ultima's beliefs, and his relationship with the Golden Carp (which appears nowhere in the movie).  In the movie, you have no feel that Tony has "come of age" as a result of his experiences, and his walk between the different religious, economic, and gender cultures.  In the film you're left more with the idea of Tony as a witness to Ultima's final days, as opposed to Ultima being the vehicle for Tony's crossing over into adulthood.  The river, the bridge, have lost all their symbolism in the movie.  The owl becomes a mere familiar, and Tony himself is less than who he is, seemingly taking the three deaths he's witnessed unfazed and unchanged.

As whether or not Ultima passes the test for witchcraft is ambiguous,  so perhaps are other central themes in the story. And while I knew I'd be getting a watered down story (and feel that the filmmakers made good choices for a general audience seeking entertainment) I found myself watching for more depth to some of the events and symbolism glossed over in the movie, and finding some little kernels of the book still embedded there, if you knew what to watch or listen for.

My greatest sadness (and biggest relief) was the missing Golden Carp, leaving out a central conflict in the story, as movie-character-Tony's Catholic faith is pretty much unwavering.  One of my biggest concerns going into the film was how the carp scenes would be handled. Whether it would be some ambiguous scene of a carp simply swimming in the river and Tony's inner thoughts are heard, or would there be some sort of cheesy CGI carp.  And of course there was neither.  The religious conflict of Tony's coming of age story is almost completely missing,  except for his relationship with one character who has no faith.

The book is so deep, so important, and so touching that the movie was a letdown for me, but I also know that this won't be the case for most movie goers, who have spent less time delving into the book than I have.  There was a time I spent more time with Bless Me Ultima than anything else in my life, including my young adulthood when I read Lord of the Rings 33 times in one year, and could recite the most meaningless LotR trivia.

I find nothing trivial in Bless Me Ultima.  I like Rudolpho Anaya's other work, but Bless Me Ultima is pure genius.

As a movie, I'd give Bless Me Ultima 5 stars... a full complement.  But I'd hoped that it would somehow transcend my rating system, and it fell short of that.  Most moviegoers won't feel the loss I did in  the film, and can instead be swept away by the story of Tony's family and culture, and the woman who both became a mentor to Tony and a character too complex to fully grasp.