Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 novel has become a classic of Chicano literature, and in adapting it for the screen writer-director Carl Franklin, whose career trajectory went from the nifty “One False Move” (1991), evocative “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) and powerful “One True Thing” (1998) to the slick, superficial “High Crimes” and murky “Out of Time” (2004), treats it with respect and dedication, if not much energy.
The simple, indeed simplistic, inclination would be to call “Bless Me, Ultima” a sort of “To Kill a Mockingbird” with a Southwestern accent. It’s a period coming-of-age story about a boy learning about life and death in New Mexico in 1944. As the film begins, six-year old Antonio (Luke Ganaton) watches as his father (Benito Martinez) joins a posse that tracks down, and kills, a young man who’s committed a murder. Shortly afterward his grandmother Ultima (Miriam Colon) arrives to spend her last days with his family. Over the course of the next two years he will bond with the elderly woman, who teaches him the old traditions. She is, you see, a witch of sorts—a curandera or medicine woman, who uses her magic for good but is still feared, even by those she helps.
At the same time Antonio is not only having his first taste of school—at which he excels—but preparing for his first communion under the tutelage of the stern town pastor (David Rees Snell). The conflict between the open-heartedness of the natural faith that Ultima represents and the legalistic, unforgiving character of mid-century Catholicism is one of the story’s main threads, especially in the treatment of Florence (Diego Miro), Antonio’s classmate and friend—a poor boy who proclaims his atheism as a result of the travails of his young life but participates in the religious instruction despite the priest’s harsh treatment of him.
The contrast in faith systems acts as a backdrop to the film’s main plot line, which involves the hostility Ultima engenders from Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), a brutish but wealthy—and therefore powerful—saloon keeper in the nearby town where the Mare family’s relatives are farmers. When Ultima, aided by Antonio, cures a cousin of Antonio’s who’s fallen ill as a result of a curse placed on him by Tenorio’s three daughters (evil witches all), and one of the girls dies shortly afterward, her father blames Ultima and seeks vengeance by riling popular antagonism against her. The man’s hatred extends to Antonio as well. (But the film also shows Tenorio being refused the right to bury his daughter in the church cemetery, which suggests at least some connection between Ultima’s ways and the establishment faith.)
All of this seems like enough matter for any film, but though Franklin jettisons some elements of Anaya’s original, he retains many more. So there’s a subplot about the return of Antonio’s three older brothers from the war, disillusioned by the treatment they’ve received in the larger world and no longer interested in their father’s dream of moving to California as a family. Two soon depart to make their own lives, and the third disappoints Antonio by not only becoming a regular at the local brothel, but for failing to save Narcisco (Joaquin Cosio), the town drunk who’s nonetheless a loyal friend of their father, when the man is killed trying to warn Ultima about Tenorio’s homicidal intentions.
These various strands are interesting individually, but taken together they make for a narrative that often seems overstuffed, especially since Franklin hasn’t found a way to tie them together very comfortably and the picture’s pacing is so deliberate that at times it seems positively funereal (and not only in the scenes involving deaths). (Alan Heim and Tony Yates were the editors.) The abundance of voiceover narration by a grown Antonio, often lifted directly from the book and sounding archly lyrical, also slows things down, even though it’s delivered by a pro like Alfred Molina.
There’s compensation, however, in the richness of cinematographer Paula Huidobro’s widescreen images, which capture the vistas of New Mexico in an almost painterly fashion (and are worth dallying over); in Colon’s dignified performance; and in Ganalon’s fresh-faced, likable way, even if the youngster occasionally comes across as wooden. The rest of the cast is variable; most get by, although some (Guerra and Cosio in particular) tend to play very broadly, and there’s a good deal of stiffness in lesser roles. The period impression, thanks to the work of production designer David Bomba, art director John Jensen, set decorator Carla Curry and costume designer Donna Zakowska, is quite convincing, especially in view of what must have been a very limited budget.
There’s a bit of a cable-movie feel to “Bless Me, Ultima,” but in the end its sincerity and willingness to address big issues—even if not always satisfactorily—make it an admirable attempt to bring an important piece of Chicano literature to the screen.