The film adaptation of Rudolfo Anaya’s first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, has strong performances by a mostly Latino cast. The film’s also got beautiful images of nature and individual scenes of undeniable power. The choice to include a ponderous narration, however, violates that basic rule of storytelling: Show rather than tell.
Film being most of all a visual medium, writer-director Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) and his co-writer, Anaya, make the mistake of not trusting their story’s imagery. Ironically, Fernando Aldaz’s narration continuously distracts from both the images and the storytelling.
Set in a rural Chicano community in New Mexico, circa 1944, Bless Me, Ultima attempts and mostly fails to bring the literary genre of magic realism to film. Beyond the self-defeating narrative, the supernatural events depicted in the film are visually too bland to be effective.
Nonetheless, veteran Puerto Rican-born actress Miriam Colon is quietly authoritative as the story’s curandera, a medicine woman who uses ingredients found in nature to heal the sick. Colon’s Ultima comes to live with young Antonio and his family on their farm.
Luke Ganalon co-stars as Antonio, an unusually good boy who seems destined for the priesthood. He and Ultima develop an instant bond. The old healer knows he’s a special child.
There’s a grace in scenes featuring Ultima and Antonio. The movie is most of all about them. Ganalon, a child actor whose growing credits include Grey’s Anatomy and Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, is never not worth watching as the inquisitive, sensitive Antonio.
The movie’s major conflict involves Ultima and Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), a saloon keeper whose daughters are, no kidding, witches who slaughter roosters during nocturnal gatherings down by the river.
While the film’s simplistic battle between good and evil produces little drama, it does provide at least one crowd scene that, visually at least, stands far above most of the movie. The scene is so good that it could be in a movie other than Bless Me, Ultima.
Despite the film’s modest 1 hour, 42 minutes length, it seems longer than it is, perhaps because of its redundancy. Children cross the bridge to go to school multiple times. Ultima and Antonio repeatedly go out looking for herbs. The glaring Tenorio keeps threatening to kill Ultima.
For all its better moments, and there are some, Bless Me, Ultima is not a movie that’s worthy of theatrical release.