Starring: Luke Ganalon, Joseph A. Garcia, Miriam Colon
Directed by: Carl Franklin (“One True Thing”)
Written by: Carl Franklin (“Devil in a Blue Dress”)
Considered the best-selling Chicano novel of all time, Author Rudolph Anaya’s 1972 novel “Bless Me, Ultima” has been waiting patiently for a film adaptation. Taking responsibility to capture the book’s affecting themes and relationship is director Carl Franklin (“One True Thing”). It’s a commendable attempt by Franklin, but one that ultimately falls short under the scope of the story. The most important emotional connections the narrative is supposed to make are sadly missing in a film that never truly commands the screen or feels authentic enough for the era.
Set in New Mexico in the 1940s, “Bless Me, Ultima,” follows the title character, Ultima (Miriam Colon), an elderly woman known as a curandera (a sort of Mexican folk healer) who is brought into the home of a family where she plans to live out the rest of her life. Although many people in the community consider her a witch, Ultima doesn’t allow the rumors she hears about her mystical healing powers to bother her. She is a strong woman and Franklin’s script exhibits her unique traits even though her character turns out to be more secondary in nature.
What “Ultima” focuses on more is the youngest boy of the family, Antonio (Luke Ganalon), who becomes fascinated by Ultima’s mystical way of life. When she shows him the healing powers of certain plants, he is instantly intrigued. Antonio’s relationship with Ultima, however, doesn’t get more complex than that. While Franklin uncovers more about faith and spirituality throughout the film, most of the dialogue and situations only go skin deep. The same goes for Antonio’s connection with his mother and father, brothers who have just come home from WWII, and a young non-religious classmate he shares unrealistic conversations with on occasion.
There are some beautiful landscapes in “Bless Me, Ultima” that shouldn’t go unnoticed, but as a coming-of-age story it leaves much to be desired. There are more than 40 years of history that give “Bless Me, Ultima” the respect it deserves from a literary standpoint. It’s unfortunate Franklin couldn’t deliver the same heart and soul in the cinematic version.