11:27 AM EST, February 21, 2013
When Carl Franklin made "One False Move" and "Devil in a Blue Dress" in the 1990s, it was like a sotto voce announcement of a genuine talent — a low-key director interested in crime fiction but also in character, and race, and the real world. Neither film was a big commercial success, so while Franklin has worked steadily in film and television since then, one suspects it has not been a pick-and-choose career.
"Bless Me, Ultima," Franklin's own adaptation of the 1972 Rudolfo Anaya novel set in New Mexico near the end of World War II, finds the director valiantly compressing Anaya's magical-realist tale into something more than a dutiful parallel to the book.
Here's what I remember most vividly: A shot of a flatbed truck laden with chilies, chugging down the road at harvest time. Also, this: a shot of a boy taking Communion, and then in two or three little moments, the boy struggling to scrape the dissolving wafer from the roof of his mouth.
These are choice, off-handed details. The story is told in voice-over by the adult Antonio, a sweet, serious Chicano preteen whose life is changed forever when a curandera, or medicine woman, named Ultima arrives to live with his family. "Is Ultima really a witch?" one child asks early on.
In Anaya's tale there are good witches, and there are bad witches, and as Antonio's days are spent in grade school, or in the fields with his uncles, or under the spiritual guidance of Ultima, the coming-of-age narrative returns, always, to the New Mexico landscape. Franklin's approach here is simple, clean and clear, perhaps too much so for a story swimming in metaphors and the supernatural. A vicious landowner and his three "Macbeth"-inspired daughters provide the oppositional force in the story.
The acting's solid enough, with Luke Ganalon's Antonio providing a heap of wise-beyond-his-years wisdom, and Miriam Colon Valle's Ultima impervious to the petty venalities of those who view her medicinal powers as sinister. The results are pretty, and sometimes beautiful. They're also a tad stiff, and the dialogue and voice-over narration sometimes has the ring of a scrupulously faithful adaptation. But Franklin's eye is alert to both the landscape and his ensemble of performers. Call "Bless Me, Ultima" a mixed blessing.
'Bless Me, Ultima' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violence and sexual references)
Running time: 1:42
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