Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bless Me, Ultima (2013)
Retrospective by Anthony Servante

A drama set in New Mexico during WWII, centered on the relationship between a young man and an elderly medicine woman who helps him contend with the battle between good and evil that rages in his village.

Director: Carl Franklin
Writers: Rudolfo Anaya (novel), Carl Franklin (screenplay)
Stars: Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez 

The movie, Bless Me, Ultima is about a boy trying to find balance between the physical and spiritual world. He wonders about evil, God, and farming. His journey to understanding his place in the whole confusing mess is guided by his grandmother, Ultima (Spanish for the Last One), a curandera to some, a witch to others. That's the crux of the flick, this difference between the supernatural and natural, a theme I often tackle in my reviews. Let's first define our terms.

A curandera is basically a mid-wife/herbalist. She knows the plants that grow wild in the New Mexico territory and uses them to cure the ills of the villagers. She also assists with the birth of babies from conception to delivery. A witch uses herbs to make people ill and to cause stillborn births.

A curandera and her patient, a sight not uncommon to me as a kid.

A chicano is an American born Mexican; he still carries the traditions of Mexico but does not consider himself a Mexican--nor an American. He calls himself a hyphenated person, a Mexican-American. In the film, the Mexican-American family Marez (Seas)-Luna (Moon) take in Ultima to live out her final days. During her stay, she begins to teach the young Antonio about the ways of cures and healing, the ways of nature. But when she reverses the curse of three witches, she becomes the target of revenge by the father of the three girls, one who dies right after the lifting of the curse.

A witch complete with familiar owl. Ho-hum.  

Young Antonio sees the villagers, including his family, take sides with and against Ultima when it suits their purposes. He also sees the Priest treat nonbelievers wickedly, a contradiction of how he understands the word of the bible. This is where the film sours for me.

Basically, this film is an example of magic realism, the thin line between herbal-ism and witchcraft in the supernatural sense. Our first moment of confusion occurs when Ultima lifts the curse that the three sisters cast on the uncle of Antonio. She tells the young boy the curse must be vomited out; and vomited it is: a black living creature with thin tentacles emerges from the sick man. This is not curandera turf. We just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.

The villain. Note the Johnny Cash duds. 

Then there's that familiar owl. Yep, a familiar like the cats of old. A pet of a witch. If you remember Oliver Stones' movie, The Doors, you'll recall the director's use of magic realism and the images of native Americans and lizards. Same thing here--only with owls. Later we learn that the owl is in fact a supernatural creature. Forget symbolism; that's a spirit in animal form.

So, the magic realism that begins the movie is overthrown by the supernatural element to what end, I don't know. I was raised by a curandera, my step-mom, who took care of me as a boy growing up in East LA. She had a garden of herbs that stunk up the whole house. She had marijuana plants, whose leaves when mixed with alcohol created an analgesic salve for arthritis. The police helicopter was always on the look-out for her crop and often sent uniformed officers to remove the plants. She was never arrested, only scolded. She was always sought out to serve as midwife to the pregnant women of the projects. The medical people would threaten to have her arrested, but didn't; she continued with her pre-natal care and still stunk up the house.

But I never saw her pull a foul creature of the damned from the throat of any sick people.

Ultima teaches Antonio about the earth and herbs.

Sure, it's just a movie; maybe it just wanted to attract a few gringos to the flick, but in doing so, it tramples on the whole concept of the book and of the real life curanderas: that between cultures, between faith and fact, there is understanding--not monsters. And hey, I probably love monsters more than anyone I know in person or online, but magic realism is not supernaturally grounded; it's in between, like a season between two other seasons.

Still, I recommend the movie. Just read the book before or after the film. Is all.


A Servante of Darkness Recommendation!

"Picaresque" by Park Cooper & Barbara Lien-Cooper

When court jester Reginald was in prison awaiting execution for telling a very ill-timed joke he made in front of the king, he made a couple of new friends: Hobart the magician and his patient, Sunny, an elf who has something very dangerous wrong with her mind. And other magical folk!

Picaresque is a comedic fantasy novel from Wicker Man Studios

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