In the same vein of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Catcher in the Rye,” Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” has evolved into one of the most widely beloved and challenged books of all time. In some high schools this best-selling Chicano novel is considered a mandatory reading. Other schools have banished the book for its use of profanity, references to witchcraft, and religious themes. For anyone with an open mind, “Bless Me, Ultima” is certainly an enriching read-through about acceptance, family, faith, culture, and independence. The charm of Anaya’s novel sadly doesn’t shine through this adaptation by Carl Franklin, which gets bogged down by wooden performance and insipid direction.
The story takes place in Guadalupe, New Mexico, following the aftermath of World War II. Luke Ganalon is Antonio, aka Tony, a 7-year-old Mexican-American who survives by his mother, father, two sisters, and three older brothers that have been fighting in the war. Antonio’s parents decide to take in Ultima, an aging healer who allegedly has spiritual powers, played by Miriam Colon. Some of the locals are apprehensive of Ultima, accusing her of being a bruja. Nevertheless, Tony still develops a connection with the outcast Ultima, who teaches him about morality and liberalism. These lessons aid Tony in his a coming-of-age journey as he contemplates his destiny and belief in God.
The highlight of Anaya’s original novel was the voice of the narrator, an older Tony reminiscing about his confusing, conflicted childhood. Since the narration is mostly limited in Franklin’s film, it’s up to the younger Tony to carry the story’s weight. This is primarily where the screen adaptation of “Bless Me, Ultima” suffers. Tony isn’t so much an active hero as he is an observer who is still trying to comprehend how life works. This character trait sticks out in literature form when it’s told from a first-person point of view. In this movie however, the confined Tony is limited to staring off into space with a blank expression on his face. As a result, this once compelling protagonist becomes a bland, boring stick in the mud.
On one hand the character of Tony falls flat because of Franklin’s underdeveloped screenplay. On the other hand, it’s because Luke Ganalon is kind of an armature performer. Yeah, yeah, it may be mean-spirited to criticize a little kid’s acting abilities. I learned that first hand after receiving an angry email for condemning that brat from “The Last Airbender.” Regardless, Ganalon simply never looks like he’s putting any effort into the performance whatsoever. Most of the cast has an overall unnatural screen presence, making for a number of awkward dynamics and exchanges that should have had more emotional impact.
There are several off moments from the book that could have made leeway for visually interesting scenes, such as the various dream sequences and the golden carp. Franklin takes no advantage of these possibilities however, shooting a rather lazy-looking movie with the feel of an after school special. At the very least, “Bless Me, Ultima” does stay fairly true to the novel’s key plot points and themes. This doesn’t mean much however, when the execution is so monotonous and passionless. Hopefully somewhere down the line a more ambitious director and better skilled ensemble will tackle this material again. Ultima simply deserves better.