Saturday, February 23, 2013

Bless Me, Ultima [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review
La Opinion-Los Angeles (EFE) [ESP][ENG-trans]

Bless Me, Ultima (directed and screenplay by Carl Franklin, based on the novel by Rudolfo Anaya) is a lovely, if at times also challenging story about a 7 year old Mexican-American boy named Antonio Mares (played by Luke Ganalon) growing-up in the llano (prarie/flatlands) of New Mexico during the latter stages of World War II.  (When the story begins, his three older brothers are all still serving in the war, and early on in the tale an incident happens in town involving another fairly young Mexican-American veteran who had just come home from the conflict).

As the story begins, Antonio's mother Maria Luna-Mares (played by Dolores Heredia) asks her husband/his father Gabriel Mares (played by Benito Martinez) if a curandera (native healer) and somewhat distant relation of her family-of-birth, the Luna family, named Última (played by Miriam Colon) could come and live with them.  Última had been present (as a midwife) at the birth of all their children, was a relative, and now in her old age, didn't really have a place to live (Why? Though left unclear in both the book and the movie, it probably had something to do with her being a curandera, which to many in the community made her something of a bruja (or witch), something that Última adamantly denied).  Not particularly excited, Gabriel nevertheless accedes to his wife's request.

Though there is reference to this in the latter stages of the movie, the difference in temperament Antonio's parents' families of birth, the Luna and the Mares families, is very clear in the book.  The Luna (meaning Moon) family was both far more religious (Catholic) and much more tied to the land (hence, why there'd be a native/natural healer like Última among them).  Antonio's uncles from the Luna side of the family were all peaceful, tranquil farmers.  In contrast, the Mares (or "of the seas") family of Antonio's father were all "unsettled" vaqueros (cowboys) who were never really happy where they were.  At the beginning of the film, Antonio's father was waiting impatiently for the older sons to come back from the war, so that he could move the whole family to California.  When the three older sons returned, he found to his dismay that they all had their own plans none of them involving either California or the llano of New Mexico, but rather to set-off to "the (bigger) city" (Santa Fe) to find work there....

Interestingly enough, the Luna family had no trouble at all melding their Catholic faith with presumably pre-Catholic (pagan) traditions of the pre-Columbian past.  In a lovely passage in the book, Antonio equates the moon (Luna) with its "horns" with Our Lady of Guadalupe (who in the traditional iconography stands gently on top of a horned moon.  The iconography works excellently in Catholic spirituality as well as it evokes the "woman clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet" of Revelation 12:1).  In contrast, Antonio's father and older brothers, all with a distinctly Mares family outlook, appear far more skeptical/worldly than the tranquil Luna family.  (It's clear in the book, less so in the movie, that Antonio initially prefers his mother's Luna family outlook to his father's ... but in both the book and the film, as the story progresses he also he starts to better understand his father's outlook as well).

Antonio was seven when the story started.  In the Catholic world, it follows then that a good part of the story would necessarily involve his preparing to receive First Communion.  Now Antonio lived in an overwhelmingly Mexican-American (hence overwhelmingly Catholic) community.  But the community was not entirely Mexican-American or entirely Catholic.  The town's parish priest, Fr. Byrnes (played by David Rees Snell), is "Anglo," and while perhaps sounding somewhat gentler than he would have sounded if he was stationed in a more "Anglo" dominated parish of the era, (as played in the movie) he still sounded discordingly harsh for the community to which he was speaking to.  Yet, certainly, that would have been how an Anglo-priest of the time would have sounded like: "If you die with mortal sin on your soul, you will go to hell and burn in hell for eternity," he unhesitatingly tells his 7-8 year old First Communion class with no "ands, ifs or buts" about it.

The problem was that there was the Anglo-looking boy named Florence (played by Deigo Miró) who was attending the class not because he wanted to make First Communion (he was a strange/somewhat heretical "Protestant" as some of Antonio's classmates had found out about him) but because as an orphan (both his parents died tragic deaths) he just "didn't want to be alone."  So even if he didn't want to make First Communion and insisted at a practice "First Confession" that he didn't sin against God but that God had sinned against him, he doggedly insisted on attending the class with the others, because he considered Hell to be "being alone."  (Doesn't one just want to cry hearing that... ;-(.

Anyway, much happens in the story, much of it involving Última, the curandera, who's always suspected of being something of a witch even though there are true witches (three daughters of a rancher, who did actually make a pact with the Devil and at one point cursed one of the Luna family uncles who falls sick shortly afterwards.  After the priest had come to bless his house but failed to cure him, Última had to come in to reverse the curse).  Última always insisted that she was on the side of Good and of God and the whole Luna family had no problem in living-out their Catholic faith in harmony with their pre-Columbian native roots.

This theme of living in peace with Christianity and pre-Christian native/land respecting paganism would probably pose a challenge to a fair number of contemporary American viewers.

Yet, I think I honestly understand it, because though I come from a Slavic (mostly Czech but also part Russian) background, my grandmother, who I knew well, was still "born in the village" in picturesque, forested, rolling-hilled Bohemia.   She came from a village where the picturesque village Church (Catholic, as a matter of course) stood (dedicated to the Assumption) on top of a hill for nearly 1000 years.  At every crossroad, meadow or forest where anything ever happened (even if it happened 500 years ago) there's a cross or a chapel, and every rock, lake and tree of note has a story.  Every good Czech with any connection with his/her pastoral past, still knows how to pick mushrooms (which ones are edible, which ones are not) and most know their berries as well.  Catholicism and the traditions of a native central European (hence generally Slavic) pre-Christian paganism extending so far back that no one knows where some traditions even come from have lived there in peace since time immemorial as well.  And the Irish would know of this kind of pastoral communion as well.

Indeed, as I watched this film and then quickly read the book on which it is based, I could not help but be reminded of a book that I read (in Czech, every day, page by page) with my grandmother as a child called Školák Kája Mařík (Schoolboy Charlie Marik) about a boy exactly Antonio's age, growing-up in rural Bohemia pretty much at the same time (though necessarily before the war).  I've long wondered if I should set-out to translate that book (only 130 pages) into English because it could give millions of American Catholics often disconnected from Slavic pasts (not just Czech but Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Croatian or Slovenian) a window into where their families came from and to see that past as not necessarily being just "sad" or otherwise "bad."  (I offer a rough translation of the first chapter of Schoolboy Charlie Marik here).

In any case, Bless me, Ultima as either book or film offers the contemporary Catholic, be he/she Hispanic, Irish or Slavic much to think about and perhaps, like the more pastoral Luna family of the story, an opportunity to find a great deal more peace.  It's a GREAT STORY.

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1 comment:

  1. With all due respect Fr. Kriz, Im not as charitable as you are about this film. Neither should you. Make no mistake about it.This movie is an expressly anti-Catholic film. The antagonist throughout the movie is clearly the Church as seen by its cartoonish caricature of the cold disciplinarian parish priest. The movie also paints the Church as impotent and uncaring when a priest we are told would do nothing more than bless the house where a sick Lucas, who is supposedly sick due to a witch's curse, lives. However our curandera comes to heal the boy using occultic and uncatholic means The movie portrays the rigid nature of little Antonio's catechetical learning to the motherly nature loving ways of La Grande. There is a clear trend in this movie in the direction of Catholic Church bad, curandera good.. We see the curandera's worldview is pantheistic when she tells Antonio about all the living things (i.e. rocks , etc). There is no question that the author of the book intended that a clear message against the Catholic Church to be understood.

    You write that "the Luna family had no trouble at all melding their Catholic faith with presumably pre-Catholic (pagan) traditions of the pre-Columbian past". This is part of the clear anti-Catholic polemics of the movie (and book). As a Hispanic Catholic this message is wrong. In Mexico where my father's family is from this has always been a problem since the Conquest. The village Catholic in Mexico will at times show more loyalty to their practices then to what the Church exhorts.

    You also write that "Última always insisted that she was on the side of Good and of God and the whole Luna family had no problem in living-out their Catholic faith in harmony with their pre-Columbian native roots" Good by whose standards? This is the moral and spiritual confusion that the movie does a masterful job in creating. The Church has always with pastoral care warned of the dangers of the kind of spiritual occultism that the curandera practices.

    By the way Fr. Kriz the image of the Blessed Mother on the Tilma that you mention is very important. The Blessed Queen is indeed standing on the moon but not in a manner that suggests syncretism is ok as Antonio suggests. Quite the opposite. It has always been understood as our Lady's vindication and crushing the Meso-American pagan god associated with the moon. In other words there is no sharing of the light with darkness. You note that the pagan/Catholic relationship depicted in the movie "would probably pose a challenge to a fair number of contemporary American viewers." I hope it goes beyond challenging to outright disturbing to the Catholic who watches this.

    I could go on with several more examples. I do appreciate the movies's depiction of life for Mexican Americans during this time period and their contribution to the war effort. Very well done. However make no mistake. This is first and foremost a religious movie with a clear agenda.

    You write that this movie can offer the Catholic "an opportunity to find a great deal more peace". There can never be peace where spiritual confusion and error are promulgated. This movie offers plenty of that.