Chicano Classic 'Bless Me, Ultima' Becomes A Movie

Rudolpho Anaya's 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima is a classic of Chicano literature. The story begins for Antonio, 6, when Ultima comes to live with his New Mexico family in 1944. Ultima is called a witch, but she considers herself a woman with healing knowledge of medicinal herbs and remedies.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Mexican-American literature, "Bless Me, Ultima" by Rudolfo Anaya is a classic. Anaya's novel, which came out in 1972, has just been turned into a movie. Film critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: The story begins for six-year-old Antonio when Ultima comes to live with his New Mexico family in 1944. Magisterially played by Miriam Colon, Ultima is an ancient person, not much bigger than Antonio, but she is also a woman of enormous power. Labeled a bruja, or witch, Ultima considers herself to be a curandera, a woman with healing knowledge of medicinal herbs and remedies, and she shares her worldview with Antonio.

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LUKE GANALON: (as Antonio) What's that?

MIRIAM COLON: (as Ultima) It's the spirit of the river.

GANALON: (as Antonio) Can it speak?

COLON: (as Ultima) Yes. Listen.

TURAN: Ultima's philosophy takes on a frightening real-world significance when Antonio's uncle is cursed by three witches and near death. The doctors in Santa Fe have given up on him; so has the priest. And Ultima is called in as a last resort to save his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BLESS ME, ULTIMA")

COLON: (as Ultima) They stole his soul. We must get it back. I will go but you must understand that when one tampers with the fate of a man, a chain of events is set in motion that no one can control.

TURAN: All of "Bless Me, Ultima" is steeped in this kind of magical realism. It believes in powers beyond the rational, which has at times gotten the book into trouble with local school boards, and insists that we believe as well. Writer-director Carl Franklin is the ideal person to bring "Bless Me, Ultima" to the screen. As the director of the mother-daughter drama "One True Thing," Franklin understands emotion, but he also did the violent "Devil in a Blue Dress." So the bad things that happen are treated dispassionately, as if they are part of life, which is the whole point. "Bless Me, Ultima" makes a difficult task look easy. It combines innocence and experience, the darkness and wonder of life in a way that is not easy to categorize but a rich pleasure to watch.

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MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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