I’ve never read Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima, the tale of a Hispanic schoolboy in a small New Mexico town during World War II. But I know it’s considered a landmark of Chicano literature, and that generally means a devotional, earnest adaptation.
On one hand, this is an often-lovely story of growing up Hispanic in America, as seen through the amber-lit idealization of childhood memory and framed by the narration of the grown Antonio (Alfred Molina). On the other, it’s a struggle of good and evil between Ultima (Miriam Colón), a wise old medicine woman (or curandera) alternately sought and shunned by her community, and tyrannical landowner Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), a fiery villain who never evolves beyond cliché. He’s an angry, vindictive killer who dominates the town. Meanwhile, the wise-beyond-his-years Antonio (Luke Ganalon), the youngest in a sprawling clan scattered by war service, tries to work through the contradictions of a culture that publicly embraces Catholicism but quietly preserves the folklore and spiritual beliefs of its pre-Christian heritage.