The award-winning novel Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Araya is considered one of the breakthrough works in the Chicano literary canon, but the movie does not exactly do that significant role justice. Directed and adapted by Carl Franklin (Out of Time, High Crimes, One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress), the film isn’t overlong. But it tries to fit so many themes into its brief running time — generational struggles; rural tradition vs. modern city life; the exultations and limitations of Catholic doctrine; the importance of our connection to the natural world; plus the heavyweight of them all, good vs. evil — that it merely touches on most conflicts instead of exploring them in depth or with any delicacy.
Set in 1944, the film centers on Antonio (Luke Ganalon), who is 7 years old and living in rural New Mexico with his parents and two sisters when Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to live with his family. Rumored to be a witch, Ultima uses herbs and magic to heal. She even saves one of Antonio’s uncles from the bad works of three sisters who apparently indulge in a little rooster slaughter and deadly curses from time to time.
When one of the sisters dies, her angry father (Castulo Guerra, one of the most over-the-top villains since Billy Zane in Titanic) blames Ultima and declares war on her, sending a torch-wielding posse to the family’s house and then threatening to kill her when that plan backfires. Because of the specific nature of his threats — “I will kill her tonight!” — someone’s usually around to stop him. But some sort of final confrontation is clearly coming.
Meanwhile, the story meanders along as the seasons pass. Antonio starts school, where kids make fun of his burrito lunches, but he excels anyway. His three older brothers return from the war with no intentions of moving to California as a family, as their father (Benito Martinez from The Shield) hopes they will. Most importantly, Antonio and Ultima develop a bond as she introduces him to the beauty and usefulness of the natural world. She also imparts important lessons: “The smallest bit of good can stand against evil.”
There’s nothing wrong with that simple message, but Franklin pushes the idea to the breaking point. Antonio and his young friends discuss good and evil so much their conversations start to sound artificial, and the transitions between scenes grow choppy as the story lurches around with all the grace of a stalling truck.
Worst of all, the plot involving Ultima’s powers pales next to other stories left unexplored. Franklin never examines the crushing disappointment Antonio’s father feels when his grown sons insist on trying their luck with jobs in faraway Santa Fe instead of embracing his dream. That generational battleground is rich, but Franklin never makes the most of it. Bless Me, Ultima feels as ripe with potential as the fields Antonio’s family nurtures, but it turns out to be a wasted opportunity.
Cast: Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez, Castulo Guerra.
Writer/director: Carl Franklin. From the novel by Rudolfo Anaya.
Producers: Jesse Beaton, Sarah DiLeo, Mark Johnson.
An Arenas Entertainment release. Running time: 106 minutes. Some violence, sexual references. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Dolphin, Southland, Sunset, Miami Lakes, Mall of the Americas, Hialeah; in Broward: Paradise, Sawgrass.