By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
It’s opening at theaters in a very quiet fashion, but “Bless Me, Ultima” is preceded by a long shadow of literary praise. Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, published in 1972, has been acclaimed as one of the key works of Latino fiction in the U.S.
The story takes place just after the end of World War II, in a Hispanic community in New Mexico. Our protagonist is a boy named Tony (played by Luke Ganalon), and we’ll see this world through his eyes.
A series of traumatic events run through Tony’s young life, making him question his place in the world, and, maybe, the way the world works. Death, the effects of the war on his brothers, the rivalries amongst the local people, the lessons of the church, all factor in.
No factor is larger than the arrival of a “curandera,” a shaman-like lady named Ultima who — if not a witch, as some say — is somehow in touch with powers beyond those of the everyday world.
She is played by Miriam Colon, a legendary actress in Hispanic theater and film, who brings great authority to the role.
The movie sketches a large collection of characters, and includes elements that border on magical realism: Death, hexes, a possibly supernatural “Harry Potter”-style owl. In short, it could easily have been played as a kind of New Agey thing with heavy mystical overtones.
Luckily, director-adapter Carl Franklin goes the opposite route. Franklin shoots it straight, with a simple style and the sincerity of a novel for youngsters. The resulting movie doesn’t knock your socks off, but it develops a steady, quiet glow about it.
There’s probably too much going on in the book to fit into a 106-minute movie. We’d like to know more about Tony’s parents (the father is a classic literary type, a restless soul who dreams of success elsewhere), or the restless brothers, or Tony’s little atheist pal who gets teased by his buddies.
The movie doesn’t really have time to flesh all that out. “Ultima” doesn’t seek to dazzle with Terrence Malick-like vistas, either; this landscape is stunning, but not prettified.
That seems right. Twenty years ago, Carl Franklin made a splash with “One False Move” and “Devil with a Blue Dress,” although much of his work has been in TV lately, and maybe the efficiency and straightforwardness of television has worn off on him.
In this case, the plain approach works. In its portrayal of Tony and his world, we get enough to create a convincing culture; maybe here, a touch of magic is an everyday thing.
“Bless Me, Ultima” HHH
A plain but effective adaptation of Rudolfo Anaya’s classic novel of Hispanic culture, set in New Mexico after World War II. We see the story through the eyes of a child, a simple approach that creates a sense of this culture, even if there’s probably too much in the book to fit into a movie.
Rated: PG-13 for violence, subject matter.
Showing: Meridian, Pacific Place.