Detecting God, by David Bax
Those familiar with the best-known works of director Carl Franklin such as One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress and the slight, mostly forgettable Out of Time might find it odd to see his name attached to the adaptation of Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima. Instead of a hard-boiled crime story about a stoic man of action wrestling with himself and his place in the world, it’s a family-friendly story of an introverted boy wrestling with God.
Luke Ganalon plays Antonio Márez, a young boy living with his family in a tiny New Mexico town in the mid-1940s. His parents (Dolores Heredia and The Shield’s Benito Martinez) and two older sisters all reside with him on the farm while his three older brothers are away at war. An old woman named Ultima (Miriam Colon), a spiritual healer, comes to stay with them and live out her last few years. When Antonio’s uncle gets sick with what is purported to be a witch’s curse, the boy accompanies Ultima to a nearby farm to try to save him by use of magic. What transpires there changes Antonio’s life in small but profound ways and sparks a hateful rivalry between Ultima and Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), a local man whose three daughters are accused of being the witches in question.
Regardless of the fact that not one person in the film is a detective, there are still similarities to Franklin’s existing body of work. Nearly every character in the film is Latino. As he did in Devil in a Blue Dress, Franklin once again explores the ills and joys of a minority community and how a strong family can weather the former and create the latter. Furthermore, in a way reminiscent of One False Move, the tale concerns a good and innocent person trying to maintain his sense of self in the face of growing evil.
Evil, in fact, is perhaps Ultima‘s greatest concern. The eternal question of why, if God exists, He allows for evil in the first place is raised. Beyond that, though, the film has further concerns. In a world with so many different perceptions of God and morality, how exactly do we define evil? Does God punish it? If so, how? If the answer is that the evil will be punished in Hell after death, after they’ve done a lifetime of wrong, does that really help? If that’s the best answer God’s followers can produce, is it time then to start questioning His existence?
Deep as these issues run, Franklin does them an unfortunate disservice by showcasing them in such a flat and artless presentation. With the occasional exception, such as a startling shot of an owl descending quickly toward the camera, talons first, the film disappointingly fulfills much of the stereotype of the made for TV movie aesthetic.
More damaging still is the music. The score by Mark Kilian is distractingly, irritatingly unimaginative. It’s queasily by-the-numbers in the way it is pulled from (it would be wrong to say “inspired by”) American folk and Native American spiritualism. I would have rather seen the film without any music at all.
All these shortcoming are particularly frustrating because they mar what is otherwise a very intelligent and humanistic look at some weighty and universal issues set against a backdrop of American minority history that is underrepresented in cinema. A film has to be good before it can be important. Carl Franklin has a couple of entries in the canon that are both. Bless Me, Ultima, however, is for Franklin completists only.