It’s becoming more common in Hollywood to have bestselling novels, especially from the fantasy genre, adapted to film. 2012 was a huge year for The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II, which were all based on bestselling books. Veteran writer/director Carl Franklin (House of Cards, Out of Time) offers a slightly different approach with his bestseller-to-film adaptation, choosing an intimate, coming-of-age story of spiritual discovery.
Bless Me, Ultima is Rudolfo Anaya’s critically acclaimed 1972 novel that has become one of the all-time bestselling Chicano books. The film could have easily imitated the novel verbatim, but the powerful script and images unraveled a new story that stuck true to the novel’s meaning. Franklin captures Anaya’s original masterpiece about 7 year-old Antonio Márez (Luke Ganalon) battling his youthful inquiries about culture, family and faith. Fate, however, brings him Ultima (Miriam Colon), a curandera, or spiritual healer, who unlocks a door to a new idea of belief: spirituality.
As a viewer, I was instantly mesmerized by the beautiful nature shots. Ultima is guiding Antonio to a new world of faith that deals with all living things, which is where the shots of nature came into play. The close-up shots conveyed a more intimate message of understanding spirituality and connecting to it, while distant shots heightened the meaning behind Ultima’s teachings to Antonio. Every nature shot served a purpose that added flare to the scene, but more impressively, each shot was intricately framed that the images could stand alone as photographs.
The dialogue, which was written differently from the novel, projected an equally powerful story. The words used were important and compelling enough that the viewer is bound to react to its wisdom. In some cases however, as a viewer, the dialogue was unconvincing in a sense that the lines weren’t delivered realistically to its time period or to the Chicano culture. In the beginning of the film it is made clear that the story takes place during World War II in a small town in eastern New Mexico. It was hard to believe that in 1944, a rich and cultured Chicano family spoke predominantly English and used about two Spanish words for every five sentences.
‘The Spirit of the Owl’ played a large role in symbolism. In the novel, Ultima’s owl represents her life and the power of her spirituality. Owls have an old meaning of being associated with death and wisdom, which are elements in the film. The owl is used as a mentor for Antonio’s journey of self-discovery. Like all book-to-film adaptations, not all elements can be shown, like The Golden Carp symbol used in the novel. The Golden Carp symbolizes moral guidance for Antonio’s battle between Catholicism and spirituality, which offer different traditions yet they aspire to make a clearer meaning of the world.
The film shines light on an idea that every practice of faith offers its own rules and tradition that possess lessons about the world. Unlike the Twilight Saga, where vampires and werewolves exist, the audience can connect with this film on a personal level. To some degree, religion and spirituality are a part of every society. The idea that there is a higher power remains to be a question individuals cross paths with. It’s interesting to see these questions hinder a young boy eager to understand the meaning of something so powerful and complex, when there are adults struggling to figure that out themselves.