To its credit, "Bless Me, Ultima" has a firm grasp on what kind of movie it is. A World War II-era, coming-of-age melodrama set in the New Mexico back country, it is an old-fashioned telling of an old-fashioned story with an old-fashioned sense of wistful sentimentality.
Never in its slow-moving one-hour-and-45-minute running time does director Carl Franklin's film pretend to be anything else, and never does it reach to achieve anything out of its grasp.
That kind of storytelling honesty is admirable, and it lends Franklin's film a sense of narrative integrity. Unfortunately, it doesn't do anything to boost the momentum in a film that - for all of its virtue - proceeds with a sense of sluggishness and a general lack of heartfelt emotion.
Rather, while Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress," "One False Move") dutifully walks his audience through the story -- based on the acclaimed Chicano novel by Rudlofo Anaya - he never takes the necessary steps to help them truly connect with it on a meaningful level.
At the story's center is a young boy named Antonio (Luke Ganalon), who undergoes a spiritual transformation when an elderly spiritual healer named Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to live with his family.
Antonio's family lives off the beaten path in a superstitious part of the world in which Catholicism and Native American mysticism blend - and often collide. The latter is especially the case when Ultima shows up. She might call herself a healer, but she is viewed with a jaundiced eye by Antonio's neighbors, who see her as a witch (until, that is, they need her help, at which point they are more than willing to suspend their suspicion).
When Ultima takes Antonio under wing, introducing him to a newfound relationship with the natural world, he begins to see faith and destiny with a new perspective.
Franklin's film boasts admirable production value, and as such does a wonderful job of immersing viewers in 1940s New Mexico and surrounding them in an often-overlooked cultural tradition. Even with its melodramatic flourishes - which often lend the film a made-for-TV flavor -- Franklin also takes frequent advantage of the big screen on which his film was intended to be shown, nicely capturing the visual grandeur of the film's Southwest settings.
(Give partial credit there to New Orleans filmmaker and NOCCA product Sara DiLeo of Monkey Hill Films, who gets producing credit and who was instrumental in bringing Anaya's book to the big screen.)
As a result, "Bless Me, Ultima" boasts a definite sense of place. We are there with Antonio throughout as he struggles to understand his neighbors, as he struggles to fit in at school, and as he struggles with his faith. Unfortunately, Franklin isn't quite as successful at capturing the depth of the traditions for which Anaya's source material is so well known.
"Bless Me, Ultima" is a film that many people are going to want to love - at least, that's the case if the affection for Anaya's book is any guide. In the end, though, it's bound to leave more than a few moviegoers disappointed.
BLESS ME, ULTIMA
2 stars, out of 5
Snapshot: A coming-of-age story about a young New Mexico boy whose perspective on life and faith are challenged when an elderly spiritual healer comes to live with his family. Based on the book by Rudolfo Anaya.
What works: It boasts strong production values, and often takes advantage of the visual grandeur of the story's Southwest setting.
What doesn't: The story movies along sluggishly, never inviting audiences to connect with it on an emotional level.
Cast: Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez, Dolores Heredia, Joaquin Cosio, Castulo Guerra. Director: Carl Franklin. Rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexual references. Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes. Where: Canal Place. Find New Orleans showtimes.
...BlessMe, Ultima tells the story of a young boy named Antonio and his loss of innocence, self-discovery, and the struggle to find enduring values. When Antonio Marez is six years old, his parents send for an old woman, Ultima, who stays with their family in a small village in post-war New Mexico where modern influence is starting to spread out from the cities. Ultima is a curandera who heals using herbs and magic and is often out casted because people believe she is a witch, but she inspires Antonio and shares her wisdom with him throughout the novel. Within his family, he is torn between his father’s riding ranch ancestors, his mother’s farm folk, and his personal calling as an altar boy. His world is forever changed by the appearance of Ultima, a healer who moves in with the family. Anaya, being a native of New Mexico, fills the seemingly empty plains and surrounding mountains with life and color. His mother’s ancestors had been farmers and his father was a vaquero. Anaya said that his grandmother, La Grande was special force in his life and that she was believed to be a curandera paralleling to Ultima. BlessMe, Ultima is the story of Antonio, a young boy coming-of-age and assaulted on all sides by powerful formative influences. Within his family, he is torn between his father’s riding ranch ancestors, his mother’s farm folk,...