It’s doubtful the popularity of Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima will be matched by the new film adaptation of the same name. It’s doubtful the novel’s controversy will translate either.
The big-screen version is a heartfelt coming-of-age story that tends to water down and oversimplify some of the more intriguing aspects of the material while emphasizing the heavy-handed spiritual mumbo-jumbo.
The film follows various conflicts through the precocious eyes of Antonio (Luke Ganalon), a young boy living in New Mexico during World War II. Living with his family in poverty, Antonio struggles to find his identity while receiving guidance from his grandmother, Ultima (Miriam Colon), a mysterious healer who is both renowned and ridiculed by the local villagers for her reliance on magic potions and perceptions of witchcraft.
However, Ultima’s teachings have value for Antonio as he becomes involved firsthand in a conflict that has both tangible and spiritual ramifications, regarding the vengeful Tenorio (Castulo Guerra) and a curse against his family.
Faith and spirituality are critical components of the film from acclaimed director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress), who also wrote the screenplay, but Bless Me, Ultima is bogged down by its deliberate pace, reliance on Catholic symbolism, and its one-dimensional characters (especially the villainous Tenorio).
There are some compelling issues on the table here, both historically and culturally, that could have been given more context. For example, the film explores themes of mysticism, ethnicity, social evolution and class division.
The most interesting character in the mix is the mysterious Ultima, yet the film prefers instead to keep the focus on Antonio’s childhood adventures, which seems like a safe choice rather than an edgy one.
Franklin, returning to features after a decade directing television shows, makes the most of his modest budget with some scenic exterior visuals, most of which were shot in New Mexico and convey an authentic period re-creation.
Praise is due the film for telling the type of story with the type of characters that doesn’t often have a home in Hollywood these days. That ambition also makes Bless Me, Ultima feel like a missed opportunity that can be admired more for its effort than its execution.
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes.