Bless Me, Ultima is an outstanding period piece. Via exceptional cinematography and gorgeous scenery, writer/director Carl Franklin literally transports you to a time and place decades ago and to a people living simple lives. The place is New Mexico. The time is World War II. The families are Mexican Americans struggling -- as all families did in a country recovering from war and a crippling depression -- to make a decent living.
Franklin, who did several terrific films in the late 1990s and through the early 2000s including one of my favorites One True Thing, wrote the screenplay from Rudolfo Anaya's popular 1972 novel.
Simple lives and simplicity, of course, are never completely simple. The family takes in a medicine woman at the end of her life. Miriam Colon is Ultima, the medicine woman. She influences the family's youngest child, Antonio, played by Luke Ganalon. Ultima sees something special in the boy that other people do not have.
Both actors are excellent, as is the rest of the mostly unknown supporting cast.
The plot of Bless Me, Ultima goes a number of directions and patiently pours through mysticism, religious conflicts, personal conflicts, local power struggles, life and death, murder and healing as seen through the eyes of a child.
While there is contentment and happiness in the film's family unit, and much love between them, times are changing in the big picture. Society is evolving at the war's end, and there are many uncomfortable changes to daily lives.
The illusion is that small towns and rural areas are peaceful and tranquil. That has never been the case. Evil always lurks somewhere in the shadows. In this case, it is where rural 1940s Mexican and Catholic mysticism collides at the intersection of life and reality. The conflicts, power struggles and grudges and are all on a road that leads to murder and death.
But murder and death aren't the point of the movie. Though prominent -- even critical -- it's more of a side issue. What matters is the view of the world through the eyes of the child Antonio, as he processes good and evil, learns about his unusual healing skills and his ability to lead and think for himself. Antonio fearlessly lets his mind go to where children really don't want to go and sees things he really doesn't want to see.
All of this is uniquely remembered through the eyes of an equally unique child who, as an adult, tells the story.
At the same time Franklin explore the adult themes, he also gives you a peek at Antonio's life as a child and his relationship with his peers and how, as they mature, the children begin to view and understand that foreign world of adulthood.
This is an exceptionally beautiful and deep movie done from an unusual perspective. See this one. But go in with your eyes wide open. There are no mind-boggling visual effects or actors who will blow you way. This is just a unique snapshot of a point in time long ago.
Director: Carl Franklin
Stars: Miriam Colon, Luke Ganalon
Mr. Movie rating: 4 1/2 stars
Rated PG-13 for mature themes and some violence. It's playing at the Carmike 12.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on DVD.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.