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'Bless Me, Ultima' Role A 'Gift From Heaven'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now we'd like to tell you about a film that took an unusually long and winding path to the big screen. The film is called "Bless Me, Ultima." It's based on the best-selling novel by Rudolfo Anaya. It's both one of the most loved, most popular and most controversial novels in the modern American canon.

The film, as the book, is set in New Mexico in 1944, and it tells the story of Antonio, a young boy whose family offers a home to a relative named Ultima. Ultima is a healer and a mystery to many of the people of the town. Some of the adults in town even call her a witch. But young Antonio takes a liking to her, and the two develop a special bond as Ultima shares her knowledge about medicinal herbs and remedies and the power of spirituality.


LUKE GANALON: (as Antonio) What's that?

MIRIAM COLON: (as Ultima) It's the spirit of the river.

GANALON: (as Antonio) Can it speak?

COLON: (as Ultima) Yes. Listen.

GANALON: (as Antonio) What's it saying?

COLON: (as Ultima) My child, you want to know so much.

MARTIN: That was the young actor Luke Ganalon as Antonio, and the distinguished actress Miriam Colon - who many may know from her extensive work on stage, television and film - as Ultima. The film, "Bless Me, Ultima," is now playing in more than 200 cities nationwide, and Miriam Colon is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

COLON: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: Many people will no doubt know you from "Scarface," "The House of the Spirits," or TV shows like "Law and Order" and "All My Children." In fact, your film and TV credits alone take up five pages, not to mention your work in theater. So, I have to ask: Why were you drawn to this project?

COLON: Well, I was called for an interview and, you know, kind of routine. You go and you try to see what it's all about. But I had no idea that, number one, that it was such a lovely part. So when they gave me little pieces of the script with some of the dialogue, I said, oh, and this is a nice lady. This is so interesting.

So as we went along - and then, of course, when I met the director and all that - I was thrilled, because there's much more of depth and dimensions to the woman that weren't apparent in my first reading. I made friends with her. I liked her. And you have a lot of advantages when you start loving the role that you're interpreting.

MARTIN: Were you familiar with the book before you started filming?



COLON: No, no. I didn't hear about the book. It was when I went to the location where it was filmed that I realized that, you know, in this part of the country, Mr. Anaya is a very well-known figure. I was thrilled, because it was such a deserving script.

MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip from an interview with the author of the book on which the film is based, Rudolfo Anaya. This is an interview he gave for the Big Read program. That's a program put on by the National Endowment for the Arts, where people in a sort of community, or sometimes an entire city are asked to read the same book so that people can talk about. And this is an interview he gave where he talked about this work. Here it is.


RUDOLFO ANAYA: The key to writing, for me, has always been to go as deep as I can into the story, because that's where we discover ourselves. That's where we make a connection to every human being that has ever existed. That's what ties us together. That's what makes us human, and that's where the guide comes in, the mentor. And so Ultima becomes a mentor for Antonia in the story and becomes a mentor for me, the writer.

MARTIN: So let's talk a little bit about Ultima.

COLON: I have met women like Ultima, and I have great admiration for them. Usually, they have been minority women, women that struggle and that don't collapse, that don't become bitter and weak with suspicion and bitterness. And I don't think Ultima ever - I don't think she ever went to college, or that she has a degree or titles of any kind. It's wisdom born from your own self, given by nature.

MARTIN: She is very tough, and I just want to play a clip from a scene where she faces off with a man named Tenorio. He's played by Castulo Guerra. And in this scene his three daughters have cursed Antonio's uncle and Tenorio calls Ultima a bruja, which means witch. But she says no, I am a curandero, which means a healer. And now here's the scene. Here it is.


COLON: (As Ultima) Are you afraid to face an old woman?

CASTULO GUERRA: (As Tenorio) What do you want, bruja?

COLON: (As Ultima) I don't know. You know, you, you're as ugly as the devil will allow.

GUERRA: (As Tenorio) To ma bruja.

COLON: (As Ultima) I am a curandera. It's your daughters who are witches.

GUERRA: (As Tenorio) You lie, vieja.

COLON: (As Ultima) Tenorio, I know about the curse. And I know when and where it was laid. And you're a fool if you don't tell them to lift it.

GUERRA: (As Tenorio) Bruja, you shame my daughters and my good name in front of these men. I will see you dead.

COLON: (As Ultima) Don't threaten me, Tenorio. You will know the power of my medicine once and all.

MARTIN: You know, here, Ms. Colon, is where I have to ask you, there are some people who are shocked that this novel was made into a film because they feel that number one, it is so much a part of its time and place. But they feel that it's also so much about the world of the spirit that things you really cannot see. And I wondered if you feel that it is something that an audience, a wide audience today can relate to.

COLON: I see nothing wrong with spirituality. I believe in the spirits. I believe in God and I'm not ashamed of it and I don't apologize for it. I think maybe I went to a curandero maybe two times or three times in my life. There's no fear. I just think sometimes you go to a fancy hotel and you check on the massages and the special treatments for very rich women and they have that done to them, except that it's called a treatment and herbal things and mud from this and this and that.


MARTIN: Spa day, right.

COLON: Two-hundred and seventy-five dollars for that. Where Ultima believed in that and also possibly, although she probably will not lecture about it, the power of nature.

MARTIN: I take your point, though, that many people now are rediscovering these natural remedies and calling it, you know, organic treatments and having spa days and things of that sort. But despite that, do you think, though, that younger people in the audience will understand and relate to this story?

COLON: I think they may not be able to understand it right away but I think that they are introduced to the subject and so that they start loving nature and defending and preserving all the wonderful things that are content that we forget and that we step upon and that we violate.

MARTIN: Finally, I had alluded at the beginning that this film took a very long time to get made. It was published in the 1970s; that Rudolfo Anaya for years would not allow anyone to even attempt to make a film from it. The producers had to go to great lengths to persuade him. Now that it's finally been made, what do you hope people will draw from it?

COLON: Well, it only enriches the possibilities of our understanding better what is going on and what's affecting the people and what's the background? And it can only lead to deeper understanding of each other and respect and kindness. The world of film, the arts, the theater, they are all powerful, powerful vehicles for conveying knowledge and for reaching the hearts of people. I am celebrating for especially that I've been given the role of Ultima. It's just like a gift from heaven.

MARTIN: Miriam Colon is an actress. She has had a long and distinguished career in stage, television and film. In her most recent project, she plays the title role in the film "Bless Me, Ultima." It is based on the novel by the same title by Rudolfo Anaya. And Miriam Colon was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Miriam Colon, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

COLON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.