Complex Questions

"Bless Me, Ultima," for all of its elegant simplicity, is a complex and beautifully told story about a young, precocious boy in search of his identity in an adult world that seems both contradictory and inscrutable. Know that there is nothing Disneyesque about this film. Its appeal resides in its willingness to explore questions that transcend childhood.

The year is 1944. It's early summer, and Maria (Dolores Heredia), tells her son, Antonio (Luke Ganalon), age 6, that his grandmother, Ultima (Miriam Colon), is coming to live with them on their small farm just south of Santa Fe, N.M. She is a curandera, a healer, though there are some in the community who believe she is a bruja, a witch.

Antonio soon discovers that his grandmother believes in the power of ancient herbs and remedies and, ultimately, in magic. He observes that the doctor from Santa Fe and the local priest are powerless to save his dying uncle, Lucas. Finally, it is Ultima, using potions and herbs, who saves Lucas, exorcising a curse placed on him by the three Trementina sisters, practitioners of satanic rituals.

And therein is the subtle tension between the wonder of miracles and healing as demonstrated by Ultima and the sanctioned religion, practiced by not only the community but embraced by Antonio's family, especially Maria.

It is Ultima who tells Antonio that "good is always stronger than evil. The smallest piece of good can stand against all evil in the world." And it is Antonio who then asks a profound question: "Why is there evil in the world?" Why did his best friend drown? Why did Tenorio (Castulo Guerra) kill his father's friend, Narciso (Joaquin Coslo)? How can God permit such injustice? When he kneels in the pew and, with folded hands and eyes shut tightly, asks those questions, he hears only silence.

Indeed, this is a coming-of-age film. A rite of passage. What kind of man will Antonio become? His father, Gabriel (Benito Martinez), is from the Marez family, wanderers and vaqueros. His mother's people are Lunas, farmers all, worshippers of the land and all its gifts. And, of course, there's Ultima. She takes Antonio on walkabouts, steeped in mysticism, across the rolling hills of southern New Mexico. The local priest, purveyor of formalized religion, gives Communion and catechism and is for Antonio, not unlike Ultima, a presence he cannot escape.

"Bless Me, Ultima" gently stretches across a lovely, emotive landscape, a film to be savored. And in the absence of ultimate answers asks only that the audience make the journey along with Antonio.


The Beecham House, a retirement community for aging musicians, is the quintessential English manor, surrounded by a verdant, British countryside.

Its aging residents are an appealing amalgamation of performers who still take great delight in their music — small groups can be found playing Shubert or jazz in the wooded nooks and crannies surrounding Beecham. In fact, music threads its way through almost every scene of "Quartet," a kind of timeless language allowing the residents to remain sublimely engaged with one another and with a medium for which they still possess an unyielding passion. The film is both sweet and hopeful.

What also enriches "Quartet" is the opportunity to watch truly gifted actors who rarely perform anymore (with the exception of Maggie Smith). And yet there they are, chewing through scene after scene as they set about organizing a yearly fundraiser (Beecham House is in a bit of a financial pickle and may have to close).

All the folks at Beecham still are vital and cantankerous and splendid, to include the four who will sing the quartet from act III of "Rigoletto": Reggie Paget (Tom Courtenay), Wilf Bond (Billy Connolley), Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) and Jean Horton (Maggie Smith).

There is tension, stemming from the financial exigencies facing Beecham, but also between Jean and Reggie, once married, now estranged. With the help of Wilf and Cissy, and the belief that the show must go on, things fall into place as these four masterful actors take hold and deliver, not only for Beecham House but also for those in the audience watching.

— Chris Honoré

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