I went into this story completely blind. Despite the book seeming to enter into my life at certain times, I never read it. Most New Mexicans have read it.--- It's always been a book that's seemed to define New Mexican culture, yet I had never bothered to touch it. And, every time I did this, I felt like I was betraying my heritage. I went to see the film with my mom. Surprisingly, she'd never read it either. We were both curious about the novel, but somehow, we never got to it.
Let's just say, we were both surprised.
This is a film that New Mexico has needed for a long time. It turns state's beautiful scenery into a character―which, like the human characters, comes across as both natural and effortless.
Anaya's story is beautifully rendered. While I haven't read the book, the film's sheer devotion and solemnness suggests that writer/director Carl Franklin has honored this extraordinary story.
Focusing on Antonio, a well-mannered boy played by Luke Ganalon, the plot mimics a coming-of-age story, but with a twist. In one of the first scenes, a bully approaches the diminutive Antonio―who, surprisingly, tackles him and immediately gains respect. Already, Anaya and Franklin are flipping the switch on us: This isn't a clichéd tale of a boy trying to become a man. It's a story of a boy trying to decipher the mysteries of the world. The whys and hows are most important to him. This is a kid who has guts.
Antonio is reluctant to meet his abuela, Ultima, played by the captivating Miriam Colón. To say that she gives the film an extra boost is a complete understatement. Slowly, during her stay with his family, Ultima gravitates toward Antonio. She sees that he is brave, and loves his family. Eventually, she reveals herself to be a witch of sorts, except that she uses her magic exclusively for healing and defending the ones she loves.
Colon's somber face and powerful confidence move the film in strides. Her character combines the realism of a weary grandmother who has faced more than her share of life's trials―along with the seeming reality of her being an actual witch. It's never fully expanded on, yet we believe it.
What makes the film so calming―and ties its characters so inextricably to setting and place―is Ultima's close affinity for nature. Antonio, in turn, looks up to her, respects her and even aids her in helping someone heal. He gives in to the light he sees in her. The scene in which Antonio helps Ultima is one filled with great suspense and horror, but also relief.
Over the course of the film, many different genres meld into one. Antonio experiences frightening moments of consciousness and fear of the unknown with an unforced realism that draws viewers in.
There are moments of utter hilarity involving the boys that Antonio befriends, as well as poignant moments of religious discussion.
Anaya deserves the credit for this compelling story, but Franklin, too, has found a perfect balance in what is at once a family drama, a child's story and a supernatural thriller.
The film's only possible flaw is the narration by an an older version of Antonio, which at times feels forced―but that's a minor point. From now until the end of my life, I will hold this film close to my heart. It's an effective combination of religious beliefs and witchcraft, which I thought wouldn't be able to exist in the same story. It's also a frank discussion of what it means to believe in God.
Now, I understand why New Mexicans are so proud of this story. It's one that I will suggest to people who have never heard of New Mexico—and to the family I hope to have in the future. This will be a mandatory watch.
Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14, PG-13, 105 min.
Santa Fe Reporter