Antonio (Luke Ganalon) is caught between worlds in World War II-era New Mexico. The preteen protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima — writer-director Carl Franklin’s adaptation of Rudolfo Anaya’s landmark 1972 novel — is about to start school, where he will be immersed in English for the first time. His father is a landed vaquero, domesticated by his mother, whose farming relatives consider the earth sacred. As the film opens, Antonio’s family is preparing for Ultima (Miriam Colon), a spiritual healer, to come stay. She will give him insight into the world beyond his senses as he prepares for his first Communion.
Franklin (The Fisher King, Devil In a Blue Dress) doesn’t quite do the film justice, considering its position in the literary firmament as an unprecedented expression of the Mexican-American perspective. The cinematography and editing is pedestrian, the lighting looks cheap and the score often fills space that could benefit from silence. It feels rushed, with many important scenes coming off as first takes. We might blame Executive Producer Christy Walton, assuming the no-frills approach her late husband applied to Walmart factored into the film’s production.
The adaptation comes off as a Southwestern To Kill a Mockingbird, prone to criticism for its predominantly English dialogue, and Anaya’s prose could have been reflected with a more thoughtful approach to shooting. But the film still impacts due to Ganalon’s naturalism, which makes Antonio easy to identify with as he witnesses eye-opening tragedies. Colon lends gravitas to the film, although her character’s impact on Antonio’s life has to be explained. “Ultima taught us how to make strength from our experiences, to hold wonder in our lives,” says a grown-up, off-screen Antonio. While worth seeing, Bless Me, Ultima could have benefitted from less experience and more wonder.