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BLESS ME, ULTIMA

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B-

Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 novel has become a classic of Chicano literature, and in adapting it for the screen writer-director Carl Franklin, whose career trajectory went from the nifty “One False Move” (1991), evocative “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) and powerful “One True Thing” (1998) to the slick, superficial “High Crimes” and murky “Out of Time” (2004), treats it with respect and dedication, if not much energy.

The simple, indeed simplistic, inclination would be to call “Bless Me, Ultima” a sort of “To Kill a Mockingbird” with a Southwestern accent. It’s a period coming-of-age story about a boy learning about life and death in New Mexico in 1944. As the film begins, six-year old Antonio (Luke Ganaton) watches as his father (Benito Martinez) joins a posse that tracks down, and kills, a young man who’s committed a murder. Shortly afterward his grandmother Ultima (Miriam Colon) arrives to spend her last days with his family. Over the course of the next two years he will bond with the elderly woman, who teaches him the old traditions. She is, you see, a witch of sorts—a curandera or medicine woman, who uses her magic for good but is still feared, even by those she helps.

At the same time Antonio is not only having his first taste of school—at which he excels—but preparing for his first communion under the tutelage of the stern town pastor (David Rees Snell). The conflict between the open-heartedness of the natural faith that Ultima represents and the legalistic, unforgiving character of mid-century Catholicism is one of the story’s main threads, especially in the treatment of Florence (Diego Miro), Antonio’s classmate and friend—a poor boy who proclaims his atheism as a result of the travails of his young life but participates in the religious instruction despite the priest’s harsh treatment of him.

The contrast in faith systems acts as a backdrop to the film’s main plot line, which involves the hostility Ultima engenders from Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), a brutish but wealthy—and therefore powerful—saloon keeper in the nearby town where the Mare family’s relatives are farmers. When Ultima, aided by Antonio, cures a cousin of Antonio’s who’s fallen ill as a result of a curse placed on him by Tenorio’s three daughters (evil witches all), and one of the girls dies shortly afterward, her father blames Ultima and seeks vengeance by riling popular antagonism against her. The man’s hatred extends to Antonio as well. (But the film also shows Tenorio being refused the right to bury his daughter in the church cemetery, which suggests at least some connection between Ultima’s ways and the establishment faith.)

All of this seems like enough matter for any film, but though Franklin jettisons some elements of Anaya’s original, he retains many more. So there’s a subplot about the return of Antonio’s three older brothers from the war, disillusioned by the treatment they’ve received in the larger world and no longer interested in their father’s dream of moving to California as a family. Two soon depart to make their own lives, and the third disappoints Antonio by not only becoming a regular at the local brothel, but for failing to save Narcisco (Joaquin Cosio), the town drunk who’s nonetheless a loyal friend of their father, when the man is killed trying to warn Ultima about Tenorio’s homicidal intentions.

These various strands are interesting individually, but taken together they make for a narrative that often seems overstuffed, especially since Franklin hasn’t found a way to tie them together very comfortably and the picture’s pacing is so deliberate that at times it seems positively funereal (and not only in the scenes involving deaths). (Alan Heim and Tony Yates were the editors.) The abundance of voiceover narration by a grown Antonio, often lifted directly from the book and sounding archly lyrical, also slows things down, even though it’s delivered by a pro like Alfred Molina.

There’s compensation, however, in the richness of cinematographer Paula Huidobro’s widescreen images, which capture the vistas of New Mexico in an almost painterly fashion (and are worth dallying over); in Colon’s dignified performance; and in Ganalon’s fresh-faced, likable way, even if the youngster occasionally comes across as wooden. The rest of the cast is variable; most get by, although some (Guerra and Cosio in particular) tend to play very broadly, and there’s a good deal of stiffness in lesser roles. The period impression, thanks to the work of production designer David Bomba, art director John Jensen, set decorator Carla Curry and costume designer Donna Zakowska, is quite convincing, especially in view of what must have been a very limited budget.

There’s a bit of a cable-movie feel to “Bless Me, Ultima,” but in the end its sincerity and willingness to address big issues—even if not always satisfactorily—make it an admirable attempt to bring an important piece of Chicano literature to the screen.

LORE

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B-

Australian writer-director Cate Shortland’s second feature offers a World War II story, based on a portion of Rachel Seiffert’s, that has a perspective different from the usual ones. Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is a German teenager living with her family—parents Peter (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and Asti (Ursina Lardi), younger sister Liesel (Nele Trebs) twin brothers Jurgen (Mika Seidel) and Gunther (Andre Frid) and baby Peter—in the waning days of the conflict. As Allied forces move into Germany from both east and west and the Third Reich crumbles, Peter, an SS officer, is busily burning his files before going off to fight (and, presumably, die), and Asti is packing up whatever her suitcases will accommodate.

After Peter departs, Asti decides to leave as well, on her own—instructing Lore to care for the younger children and, if need be, take them to Hamburg, where their grandmother lives, via train. But when it becomes necessary for her to do so, she finds that the trains have been taken over by the occupiers, and so begins a long trek by land with Liesel, Jurgen, Gunther and Peter in tow.

Virtually all of the film’s remainder is an account of their journey, during which they occasionally stop to ask for food or shelter—one interlude is with an older woman half-mad with depression, bemoaning the fact that the people weren’t loyal enough to the now-dead Hitler—but Lore’s fascist indoctrination becomes clear as well when the little troupe join forces with Thomas (Kai Malina), a young man traveling alone. Thomas bears identification papers that bear the star of David although he looks suspiciously fit for one who claims to have been liberated from Auschwitz. Nonetheless Lore accepts him companionship and help in stealing supplies, though she insists on keeping her distance and makes her anti-Semitism clear.

Of course, the trek has its share of crises—encounters with desperate survivors who pose a real threat, a ride with a group of American soldiers, a suspenseful train ride, a tragedy that causes tension between Lore and Thomas—and it effects a transformation in Lore, who by the time she reaches Hamburg has lost much of her old certainty about things. But the film doesn’t overplay the changes; even in the closing scenes it refuses to opt for the sort of bittersweet uplift one might expect.

Rather “Lore” moves ahead slowly and haltingly to an ambiguous close, keeping its focus narrowly on the children and portraying events from the perspective from the perspective of the young girl burdened with responsibilities beyond what should be expected of one her age and with the ideological remnants of the regime she grew up under—and which her parents had completely embraced. Shortland and co-writer Robin Mukherjee work on a relatively small scale, concentrating on vignettes that suggest the larger picture of a devastated land and a demoralized population still forlornly in the thrall of a defeated dictatorship. Even cinematographer Adam Arkapaw follows their lead, framing images that take advantage of the narrative’s mostly-forested locales but employ overpowering close-ups to convey a feeling of claustrophobia even in the outdoors. And while some of the adult supporting cast offer sharply observed turns, only Rosendahl really invests her character with a substantial degree of complexity.

The result is a film that’s remarkable for its unusual perspective and its intense portrayal of a society reeling from defeat and disillusionment, but one that never manages to connect emotionally as deeply as it might. While admirable for refusing to treat its atypical story in the obvious fashion, “Lore” doesn’t find an alternative that’s entirely successful.