Carl Franklin returns with Bless Me, Ultima, his first feature since 2003’s Out of Time. An adaptation of a 1972 novel by Rudolfo Anaya, which is reputedly the best selling Chicano novel of all time, is actually the first novel of a trilogy, documenting the coming of age of a young boy in 1940’s New Mexico through his special relationship with an elderly family friend. Told with flourishes of magical realism depicting the mysticism and folkways of the indigenous culture of the area, this tale of a young boy’s spiritual transformation documents the vainglorious struggles of Christianity encroaching on the ways of old world pagan rituals and his subsequent disillusionment with religion. What sounds like a philosophically intriguing premise doesn’t quite translate in this bluntly conditioned film treatment that butchers a Bildungsroman into a parody of good vs. evil.
In 1944 Guadalupe, New Mexico, six year old Antonio (Luke Ganalon) is reunited with Ultima (Miriam Colon), the midwife that delivered him and his three elder brothers (who are off currently fighting in the war). Ultima has come to spend her final days with Antonio’s family and it’s evident that she shares a special bond with the young boy. While Antonio’s mother Maria (Dolores Heredia) and father Gabriel (Benito Martinez) deeply respect Ultima as a healer and folk magic expert, her presence is at odds with their Catholic faith and the deeply religious community around them. Immediately upon her arrival, the rumor that Ultima is a witch hounds her, confusing young Antonio, whose father wishes for him to grow up to be a farmer while his mother is grooming him for the priesthood. When his uncle Lucas is cursed by the dreaded Trementina witches for discovering one of their nightly witch rituals, Ultima is called to lift the curse, and she reverses it upon them.
As the sisters perish one by one, their father Tenorio (Castulo Guerra) takes it upon himself to seek vengeance on the old woman, though he is first detained by family friend Narcisco (Joaquin Cosio). When Narciso is brutally murdered in front of Antonio, the boy has a strange fever dream which only reinforces that his religion cannot explain the nature of Ultima’s powers. He is further unnerved by a situation at school where a local boy, Florence (Diego Miro), does not believe in God and is treated cruelly by the local priest and other children. The fate of Florence causes Antonio to be sent to work with his uncles during the summer for a change of scenery. But come summer’s end, the vengeful Tenorio once again tries to harm Antonio, who realizes that Ultima is back home in danger, with no one to protect her.
Throughout Bless Me, Ultima is the soothing, omniscient narration of Alfred Molina, who breaks in at random as the adult voice of Antonio. Unfortunately, the poetic language of Anaya’s words are often cause for distracting laughter with statements like “Our river suddenly stopped singing the songs of summer,” to note the change of seasons and passage of time. Franklin, who has some significant credits to his name, most notably the 1995 Denzel Washington starrer Devil in a Blue Dress, seems woefully absent here, his adapted screenplay filled with cringe worthy bits of dialogue that connotes a lack of familiarity and warmth not only for the characters and setting but also his lack of understanding concerning children and how they interact with the world.
For her part, veteran actress Miriam Colon (who has been around since the 50’s and acted alongside the likes of Brando and Pacino) as the wizened Ultima is a commanding presence, her sequences sometimes spellbinding when working her magic spells, an essence that quickly dissipates when the focus isn’t solely on her. Ultimately, Bless Me, Ultima is a failed attempt that could have been fashioned into a meaningful exploration about the nature of belief and the rigid sanctions of religion but instead ends up being a tonally awkward tale that abruptly ends without much of a satisfying conclusion, as if its river suddenly stopped singing the sounds of summary.