A Mexican-American boy processes his spiritual and earthier experiences into a vivid childhood, guided by his medicine-woman mentor, in “Bless Me, Ultima,” a magical-realist drama based on Rudolfo Anaya’s popular novel.
Directed and adapted by Carl Franklin, the film is a coming-of-age tale, a mentor-pupil story and a supernatural village-life adventure set in a distinctive place and time. In all of these arenas, it is too colorful to fizzle but not compelling enough to triumph dramatically.
In Guadalupe, N.M., in the 1940s, 6-year-old Antonio (Luke Ganalon) lives with his religious Catholic mother (Dolores Heredia), cowboy father (Benito Martinez) and several siblings, including brothers fighting Nazis overseas.
Antonio’s daily encounters include brawling schoolmates, a strict priest and a drunken but decent soul named Narciso (Joaquin Cosio). Disturbed by local acts of violence, he begins asking about good versus evil.
Guidance comes with the arrival of Ultima (Miriam Colón), an elderly curandera (traditional healer) with wisdom to impart, a reverence for the land and an owl guardian. Ultima teaches Antonio about the ways of spirits and marvels of the earth.
Danger arises when Ultima rids Antonio’s uncle of a curse that is believed to have been inflicted by the daughters of malicious innkeeper Tenorio (Castulo Guerra). When one of the daughters dies, Tenorio pronounces Ultima a witch and vows to kill her. His wrath triggers a string of violent incidents.
The film is often interesting and vivid. Franklin’s presentation of wartime New Mexico and its mix of Latino and native cultures, and Christian and traditional beliefs, isn’t something Americans regularly see. Nor is the close-up look of Mexican-American dreams and how all immigrant aspirations were affected by the war.
Additionally, Franklin, whose directorial credits include the neo-noir gem “One False Move,” has a gift for depicting predicaments.
Yet his adaptation of a beloved book he has described as spiritual and poetic is far from mesmerizing. The drama can feel stuffed and boggy. The Ultima-Tenorio feud unfolds as a middling series of aggressions by Tenorio and supernatural actions by Ultima.
Meanwhile, the Antonio-Ultima bond is superficial. Colón, whose credits include a life-achievement Obie Award, has little opportunity to create a three-dimensional character.
While the film has thick, individually vibrant brushstrokes, they don’t add up to a cohesive whole. Hollywood hooey this movie isn’t. But a drama like this needs to deliver more of its own magic.