After years of working as a bit television actor, Carl Franklin achieved momentary auteur status in the 1990s with a powder keg of a directorial one-two punch: 1992’s One False Move and 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress. Aside from being superbly crafted neo-noirs, each film deftly explores the sometimes-violent struggle of repressed minorities hoping to reclaim their sense of identity in 20th-century America. The double crosses and poisonous relationships defining these serpentine narratives hold deep social implications, reflecting a divided world where class, economic distress, and racial inequality are products of institutional models constructed to sustain the white majority. Maybe that’s why the central female characters of both films are mixed-race femme fatales attempting to hide their true colors under the cloak of seduction.
Two decades later, some of these same social concerns can be found in Franklin’s latest film, Bless Me, Ultima, a mostly straightforward adaptation of Rudolfo Anaya’s magical realist novel of the same name. Set during the climax of WWII in an impoverished rural New Mexico community, the film tells the story of a young Mexican-American, Antonio (Luke Ganalon), who learns the ways of the spirit world from his visiting grandmother. Labeled a “curandera,” or witch doctor, by the gossiping town folk, Ultima (Miriam Colon) is both renowned and feared for her healing medicinal cocktails and powerful connection with the spirit world.
Antonio’s coming of age is structured around Ultima’s rolling feud with a family of sisters who also dabble in the black arts, but Franklin often veers from the core melodramatic narrative to address a fracturing of identity in his lead character’s family. Gabriel (Benito Martinez), Antonio’s stoic father, dreams of moving to California once his three oldest sons return from fighting in the Pacific. But the afterglow of their arrival home quickly dims, revealing Gabriel’s fantasy for the future to be just one of many social mirages plaguing the immigrant experience.
Ultima’s contradictory relationship with the community at large also speaks to the dismissive qualities of public perception. In one scene she’s lauded for saving a young man from a wretched curse, then ridiculed in the next for being a witch. In this regard, Franklin attempts to reveal how even the most destitute of societies limit their own people by way of gossip, diversion, and extremism, and how images of resistance against such a reactionary mentality persist. The shot of a child urinating on the side of a church is a fine example of this seamless sense of subversion.
Unfortunately, the film’s interest in social themes remains background fodder within a far more generic good-versus-evil narrative. The traumatic images Antonio witnesses are often toothless, offset by flowery voiceover (taken directly from Anaya’s prose) and sweeping music cues, while Franklin’s visual framework only gains a sense of the sublime in expansive wide shot. The radical narrative tangents of Franklin’s best films—black home ownership in Devil in a Blue Dress, backwoods jungle fever in One False Move—never find an equivalent in Bless Me, Ultima. Instead, the film relies heavily on flaccid pull quotes from Ultima herself to convey a simplistic version of minority identity, bits of Lifetime-movie wisdom like: “The smallest bit of good can stand up against all the powers of evil.”