"Bless Me, Ultima" is like the cobbled memories we might have while reflecting on our own lives during a warm summer day. These bits and pieces of retained memories come skipping back with only a tenuous thread to hold them together. Observed in linear form, there is a disconnection and disruption that is too jarring to ignore.
The film, based on the much beloved novel by Rudolfo Anaya, offers a look at the simple life of a Hispanic family living in New Mexico during World War II. This world is shown through the eyes of Antonio (Luke Ganalon), an elementary school student with a large appetite for learning. This quiet world changes when Ultima (Miriam Colon), comes to live her final days with the family.
Ultima is thought of as a witch because of her healing powers, which makes her both a respected and feared member of the community.
Director Carl Franklin shows a reverence for this tale of family that is so blinding that he overlooks the kind of structure needed to carry such a tale from start to finish. Instead of filling in details about Ultima's past, or her influence on Antonio, Franklin lets the film drift into beautiful vistas of the landscape that helped forge these people. He becomes so entranced with the beauty that the story moves on without form or focus.
There are some strong story points -- particularly those when Antonio and his friends discuss life, religion and other matters. They offer more insight into the emotions going on in the story than any of the adult characters. But those moments get lost when Franklin lets the movie drift into yet another contemplative look at the land, muddied by an uninspired voiceover.
Stories told through a child's eyes work only if the actor is strong enough to command our attention. Luke Ganalon's a likable young man, but he doesn't have the acting skills to make the major scenes -- where he's the surrogate for the audience -- resonate with any emotion. He watches a man die and plays a game of marbles with the same neutral stare. There's also the problem with the time element: The film covers several school years and none of the children age.
"Bless Me, Ultima" lacks consistency in story, acting and design to make it the compelling film version of the book it should have been. It's like walking past a series of paintings that depict important -- and not so important -- moments in one person's life. There's power in some images, but from moment to moment they lack energy.
"Bless Me, Ultima," rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content. Stars Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez, Castulo Guerra. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Grade: C
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