By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin February 22, 2013 at 6:38PM
All I knew about this film going in was that it was based on one of the most popular Chicano books of modern times, written by Rudolfo Anaya and published in 1999. When I learned that it was adapted for the screen and directed by Carl Franklin, I smiled in anticipation of something special. His résumé includes such memorable pictures as One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress, andOne True Thing, but like some other talented filmmakers he has gone where the work is, namely television, piloting episodes of Magic City andHouse of Cards, among others. It’s good to see him in the feature film arena again, especially with such a masterful and richly textured work as Bless Me, Ultima.
Seven year-old Antonio, played by a wide-eyed, guileless Luke Ganalon, is a serious-minded boy. Life on his family’s New Mexico farm during World War II takes a dramatic turn with the arrival of a curandera, or healer, named Ultima, played by the majestic Miriam Colon, who comes to live with the family. She shares her wisdom with the impressionable boy as she takes him under her wing. Conflict arises when Ultima stands up to a local bully, a mean-spirited man named Tenorio who inspires suspicion and even hatred among his neighbors.
Franklin evokes the culture of a community that believes in God but is too easily swayed by superstition. His casting is excellent, and he manages to stage scenes with Antonio and his young schoolmates that feel genuine and never contrived—no easy feat. The flavor of New Mexico in the 1940s is tangible, and the performances are exceptionally good. A scene near the end of the film in which Antonio’s father (played by Benito Martinez) tells his persistently curious son how he views good and evil is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Bless Me, Ultima is simple, sincere, and moving…a breath of fresh air.