Monday, September 16, 2013

Bless Me, Ultima (2013)

 Directed by Carl Franklin
Based on the book by Rudolfo Anaya
2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch instantly on Vudu or Amazon

Better yet, buy the book!

For whatever reason, I didn't read many novels growing up. Hell, I didn't read many novels ever, until the last couple of years. But now I read constantly. Can't get enough.

"The book was better." is what I've always heard about adaptations. But I've had no first hand experience of this phenomenon until now. I happened to catch Roger Ebert's review of "Bless Me, Ultima" about a year ago and decided to check out the novel. I'm so glad I did. It's an excellent piece of literature that added much to the Chicano culture it celebrates.

"Bless Me, Ultima" is a coming of age story that follows a young boy (Antonio Mares) near the border who sees a lot of tragedy and suffers a crisis of faith. His mother would like him to become a priest or farmer like the men on her side of the family. His father was a vaquero out on the llano (cowboy on the plains) and believes his bloodline will turn young Antonio into a free spirit.

Ultima is a curandera. You might think of her as a shaman or witch-doctor. However, in the book she
Book Cover
adamantly refuses the title of witch. Witches are evil, you see, and a curandera is good. Ultima has an instant chemistry with Antonio when she comes to live in the Mares household and takes him on as an intern of sorts.

I'll also add that Ultima's life-force seems to be tied to an owl that follows her around. If you fuck with Ultima, that Owl will kick your ass. Seriously.

There is one noticeable absence in the movie that I was really disappointed with. The novel features a legend of a Golden Carp who serves as a sort of pagan god. There's a lot of Native American culture in that region and the Carp is certainly an artifact of that influence. The Golden Carp makes a literal appearance in the book as well. Antonio and his friend see the Carp in the river and Antonio comes to believe there's something truly special about it. So Antonio is being pulled in many different directions; farmer, cowboy, priest, pagan, curandera. Everyone has a job lined up for Antonio and no one ever asks how he feels about it.

In the movie? No Golden Carp. Not even a subtle mention of it. I'm hoping it was cut out for run-time considerations but I fear that the producers were afraid of pagan gods being shown in their film.

In fact, the whole movie is far less supernatural than the novel. The book features rocks falling from the sky because of a witch's curse. Later, the victim of that curse coughs up a bizarre ball of living phlegm. That's all missing from the movie. Director Carl Franklin seems far more concerned about Antonio's relationships than his experience with unearthly powers.

The good news is, everything in the film was exactly how I imagined it in the book. The home, the characters, the town, the villain. It was all faithfully reproduced. The impact that Antonio's brothers (recent WWII vets) is largely glossed over. They show up and then they leave. That's also what they do in the book, but not without leaving a much bigger impression.

Should you see the film?  If you want to. I'm not sure it will mean much to anyone who hasn't read the book.

Should you read the book?  Yes. You should be forced at gunpoint to read the book. Everyone should.


  1. The book sounds amazing. I love magical realism in fiction. This reminds me a bit of the book (and its film adaptation) 'Like Water for Chocolate', which is set in Mexico. I really recommend it, though it is primarily a romance so steer clear if that's not your thing.

    Since you liked the book are you planning on reading its sequels? I believe it's a trilogy.

    1. I'm not against the idea, but there's just so much stuff to read and the other two books aren't at the top of my list.

      Also, they seem to be more of a "spiritual trilogy". I don't think they share characters, only themes and locations. I did read that there's a character named Crispin in one of them though. So that could be interesting.

  2. This is the quintessential novel about growing up as a Hispanic boy in New Mexico seventy years ago. It is poetic, beautifully photographed and enormously compelling. It is about darkness and light, religion and witchcraft, honor, freedom and the deep love of the land which is still so prevalent in the Nortenos of New Mexico. It is not to be missed.