Bless Me, Ultima; or, they do make them like they used to

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Director Carl Franklin elicits naturalistic (which is to say, not cute) performances from his child actors.
  • Director Carl Franklin elicits naturalistic (which is to say, not cute) performances from his child actors.
With the exception of River East 21, all the Chicago theaters screening Bless Me, Ultima, which opens today, are located way south or way west of downtown. It's a shame to see the movie marginalized this way, since more than any other American film I've seen recently, Ultima evokes the spirit of studio-era Hollywood cinema, which aimed to please general audiences rather than target demographics. Yes, most of the characters are Chicano, but writer-director Carl Franklin (who's black, incidentally) emphasizes the universal aspects of their story, which he adapted from Rudolfo Anaya's acclaimed young adult novel. The film tells the story of a young boy's coming-of-age in 1940s New Mexico, focusing on his spiritual development—as fostered by Catholic educators and an elderly mystic whom his parents take in—and his growing awareness of adult fallibility. These are familiar themes, but Ultima reminded me specifically of To Kill a Mockingbird (both the book and the movie) and Jacques Tourneur's Stars in My Crown in its small-town setting, which comes to suggest American society in microcosm, and its use of a child protagonist to confront complex moral questions.

Perhaps it's the film's religious content that has put the distributor on edge. After the niche-market success of Left Behind and other conservative Christian parables, spectators (religious and otherwise) might assume that a movie depicting a boy's Christian education will be as prescriptive as the thing it depicts. But one of the most impressive things about Ultima is the evenhandedness of Franklin's approach. The film portrays Antonio's Catholic upbringing in a positive light, but it also encourages sympathy towards the title character, whose mystic practices draw from indigenous pantheistic traditions. More surprisingly, the film also encourages sympathy towards a friend of Antonio's who's a sworn atheist. This character, Lawrence, lost both his parents at an early age, and the older sister who's raising him is a prostitute. Given that history, Antonio comes to understand Lawrence's rejection of religious faith, and the film presents it as a sign of his maturation that he can accept someone whose beliefs differ from his own.

This development doesn't feel schematic, however. Both children register as natural products of the film's environment, an isolated small town that's fertile ground for religion and lawlessness alike. As in his Walter Mosley adaptation Devil in a Blue Dress, Franklin renders the 1940s setting vividly, yet not overly fastidiously; the past seems as graspable and complicated as the present. This effect can't be credited to the production design, which, in fact, looks a little on the cheap side; rather it's Franklin's control of pacing, tone, and visual grammar, which he uses to convey pleasing familiarity.

The average shot length in Bless Me, Ultima is considerably longer than that of most recent Hollywood productions. Franklin regularly lets conversations run on without cutting, allowing the spectator to situate himself in the setting and appreciate the organization of people across the frame. This was standard practice in Hollywood storytelling well into the 1970s; in 2013 it suggests deliberate restraint, a commitment to letting people and places speak for themselves. It's also worth noting that Franklin refrains as much as possible from cutting to master shots of New Mexico's mountainous terrain (as tempting as that must be). Instead he focuses on farmlands, schoolyards, and the like, modestly expressing awe at this small community that's taken root in a desert.

The key word here is modestly. Franklin's craft is too self-effacing for Bless Me, Ultima to be marketed as an art movie, but it's this very quality that gives the drama its weight. Even the story's one-note villain—a murderous landowner named Narciso who terrorizes Ultima because he thinks she cursed his family—emerges on a human scale. Franklin observes his actions no differently than he observes any of the other characters: patiently and from a slight, inquisitive remove. Antonio's narration may classify Narciso as "evil," but Franklin avoids obvious visual cues that might do the same. The movie's point is that malice is inevitable and that growing up means learning to reconcile that fact with your ideals of how people should behave, whatever spiritual guidelines might inform them.

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