At first, it was a barely audible hum on the soundstage of Garson Studios, in Santa Fe. Within minutes, it rose to an excited whisper that darted around the stage. “He’s here, he’s here!” seemed
to slip from between the lips of a dozen members of the cast and crew.
From the starstruck atmosphere, one would have thought a Brad Pitt or Matt Damon was about to make a cameo in the film being shot here today. Instead, the figure who emerged onto the set wore a conservative V-neck sweater over a sky - blue shirt, slacks, and sneakers. His hair and moustache were a soft, silvery gray. But the normality of his appearance did nothing to diminish his aura. The bemused visitor was Rudolfo Anaya, author of the quintessential novel of New Mexico magical realism: Bless Me, Ultima.
The book, published in 1972, is Anaya’s semi-autobiographical story of growing up in rural northeastern New Mexico in the l940s. It draws from real events in Anaya’s life, and from New Mexico cuentos (folktales) that are rich in witchcraft, animals, and magic.
The tale is told through the youthful eyes of Antonio, the author’s alter ego. When Antonio is six years old, Ultima, the woman who delivered him and buried his afterbirth, comes to live with his traditional Catholic family. With her deep knowledge of herbs and healing, Ultima is somewhere between a curandera (folk healer) and a shaman.The connection between the boy and the elderly Ultima is profound.
Forty years after the book’s publication, an adaptation has finally been filmed under the direction of Carl Franklin, a veteran actor, writer, and director best known for helming Devil in a Blue Dress, with Denzel Washington. Working with a cast and crew from Los Angeles, New York, and New Mexico, Franklin undertook the daunting task of translating one of the state’s most beloved pieces of literature into film. The production schedule led the troupe from Ruby Ranch in Sapello, to Romero Farms in Alcalde, to Rowe’s Pecos River Ranch, and to Merced del Pueblo Abiquiú. These locations stood in for Santa Rosa and environs, where Anaya grew up and where the story is set. The film premiered in New Mexico October 17, at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival; its producers hope it will soon be in a wide release throughout the state.
“When I saw Carl’s first draft, I had problems with it,” Anaya admitted, after finding himself a good vantage point on the movie set. “It was the kind of screenplay I could have written, and that’s bad news. The scenes had been picked out from the novel and put together, and it didn’t seem to have what I expected would be the writer’s own creativity. When I read it the second time, I saw Carl Franklin taking over the story and writing it his way. I e-mailed him and said, ‘You nailed it.’ When you go from one medium to another, you lose some of Antonio’s internal world, but you gain the visual, which has its own emotional impact.”
With Anaya’s blessing, Franklin cast the indie film with little-known actors, and shot it on a modest budget (by Hollywood standards) of about $11 million.
Franklin, a UC Berkeley graduate who got into the business through acting in the early 1970s, admits to a deep, almost visceral connection to the state he first visited with his mother in 1977. “The land is pretty strong here,” he said. “There’s a mythology that goes along with New Mexico—a spiritual quality.”
The writer-director connected to those elements in Anaya’s book and in New Mexico. He discovered “a continuum . . . with the Hispanic culture that connects directly with its history—more than any place I’ve been in this country. When we were looking for locations, we would find older people who were born in their houses, and their fathers and fathers’ fathers had also been born there. There is a richness in that culture that people don’t know about. They don’t realize that much of what you find in New Mexico predates the U.S. being a country.”
Mark Johnson, a well-known Hollywood player who produced such classics as The Natural, said he was contacted about the Bless Me, Ultima project four years ago by the producer Sarah DiLeo and Christy Walton, who was married to one of Sam Walton’s sons and is financing the film. “We took it to studios, but it was a tough sell because the protagonist is a young boy, but it’s not a young kids’ film. The film is about questions of faith, the nature of evil. It’s about a spiritual discovery. The book has been banned. It has been considered sacrilegious, but it’s a very religious book. It’s about believing in what you choose to believe in.”
Johnson said he was impressed that Anaya gave Franklin the freedom to translate the novel to film using his own interpretation: “Once we had Rudolfo’s OK, we didn’t have to answer to a studio or a distributor. We only had to answer to ourselves.”
Míriam Colón, a petite actress who lives in New York City and was born in Puerto Rico, portrays Ultima, a composite of different women Anaya knew growing up. Colón said she had “met and admired many women like Ultima in the Latina community. Those women—starting with my mother when I was a child—have tremendous strength and the capacity to endure. I admired and cherished my mother—her dignity, her courage, her capacity to survive a lot of hardships. I could not have interpreted Ultima
if I hadn’t loved her when I read the book. I hope Rudolfo is happy with my interpretation.”
It would seem that every one connected with the film was intent on obtaining Rudolfo Anaya’s approval. “They all asked [for my blessing],” Anaya said without hesitation. “But you have to understand that there was a collaboration in certain areas—it was not an everyday thing. I was extremely busy writing and finishing up my novel Randy Lopez Goes Home, which is a bookend to Bless Me, Ultima; it’s about the spiritual journey of a man in his early 30s. My own work took precedence over going to the set. To have been here looking over Carl’s shoulder . . . neither he nor I would have gained anything.”
There was one instance when Franklin dearly wished the New Mexico master of magical realism had been by his side. While they were filming a scene in which Ultima is alone in a very small room, the still photographer, Ursula Coyote, shot a photo, and a face showed up behind the stovepipe. “At first I thought it was a man with a sinister face,” Franklin said. “But when Ursula exposed the film and brightened it up, there it was clearly a woman wearing a dark dress, and she had a warm, beautiful smile on her face.” Someone told Franklin that the room was once part of an orphanage, or perhaps a place for unwed mothers; some kind of social service was offered there. So Franklin went back and looked at the words Ultima spoke in the scene, “Good is always stronger than evil. . . . The smallest bit of good can overcome all the powers of evil in the world.”
As Franklin and other cast and crew members accompanied him to the set’s door, Anaya turned and warned them, with mock severity. “Remember that I’m always watching you,” he said. “I’m the face in the picture.”
A Rudolfo Anaya blessing comes in many forms.
Judith Fein is a Santa Fe–based travel writer and author of Life Is a Trip.