Much like the character Antonio Márez in “Bless Me, Ultima,” Rudolfo Anaya has been on a journey. For 40 years, the award-winning author and New Mexico native daydreamed about the day his book would become a feature-length film.
After the decades-long wait, Anaya can breathe deep. “Bless Me, Ultima” will have its New Mexico premiere at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival at 7 tonight to a sold-out audience at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe.
On Friday, the film will open at Regal 14 in Santa Fe, Dreamcatcher in Española and Cottonwood, Century Rio 24 and Century 14 Downtown in Albuquerque.
The novel, required reading at many New Mexico schools for years, was awarded the prestigious Premio Quinto Sol literary prize in 1972 for bringing Chicano literature to the forefront of American cultures. The book also drew its share of controversy from critics who said it was anti-Catholic and too sexually explicit.
The New Mexico premiere comes one month after the film made its world premiere at the Plaza Theatre in El Paso on Sept. 17, much to some New Mexicans’ disappointment that it didn’t show here first.
The premiere in New Mexico marks the end of a seven-year journey getting the book from script to film. “I was worried,” Anaya said during a recent interview. “I think it turned out great and everyone will love it. Carl Franklin and crew did a great job with the movie.”
“Bless Me, Ultima” is a turbulent coming-of-age story about Antonio, a young boy growing up during World War II in Guadalupe, N.M. When a mysterious curandera, Ultima, comes to live with his family, she teaches him about the power of the spiritual world. As their relationship grows, Antonio begins to question the strict Catholic doctrine he has been taught by his parents.
Through a series of mysterious and, at times, terrifying events, Antonio must grapple with questions about his own destiny, good versus evil, and ultimately, how to reconcile Ultima’s powers with those of the God of his church.
Anaya said when he was writing the novel, he never imagined the impact the book would have on readers.
“I think it speaks to readers because the soul or the spirit of the characters and the community seem real and people are connecting to that,” he said. “After all, it’s a spiritual journey for the boy in the novel and people connect to the spiritual journey and learning from a woman who has helped other people all her life. We all kind of yearn for that. To have a guide or mentor in our lives who opens up the beauty of the world. It’s an amazing thing.”
Anaya was a consultant for the script and was kept in the loop when it came to casting.
“The minute they sent me Miriam Colon, I thought she looked like an Ultima,” he recalled. “Then they sent photographs of Luke Ganalon and he seemed to fit the part of Antonio. I could almost see myself in him.”
Colon said she was ashamed she hadn’t read the book before she was cast because it has such a strong female character. Despite being poor, Ultima has a great spiritual quality, she said.
“Ultima is a character that is so strong and full of life. She has a lot to teach Antonio,” she said. “They stick together, and it’s all because of Ultima. She’s the guide that they all need.”
Aside from filming the movie entirely in New Mexico, Anaya was pleased to see that Latino actors were used in the film.
“They found a lot of Latino actors and I think if that wasn’t the case, it would have ruined the movie,” he said. “People often ask me who is in the movie and they are expecting Hollywood names. But all of the actors in the film are excellent. You may not know their names but they really reflect the sense of place of New Mexico and the culture.”
Anaya said he’s looking forward to celebrating the premiere with his familia — both personal and professional.
“I just wrote a book and never expected anything from it. It’s been 40 years and still relevant to a lot of people,” he said. “I hope that more films will be made that focus on Latino and Mexican-American culture. I hope that getting my book made into a film will help inspire that. Who knows, if an offer came along, maybe another book will become a movie.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal