It's a tricky thing adapting a beloved novel, and Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, now hitting theaters, certainly qualifies. Long a favorite of middle school and high school literature curricula, the 1972 Bildungsroman follows the classic construction Joseph Campbell called the "monomyth" in telling the story of soul-searching first grader Antonio Márez.
The task of adaptation has fallen to writer-director Carl Franklin (best known for One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress). Franklin shows a clear understanding of and respect for the material, and yet his curiously flat film comes off as too polite, too bland. To some degree, this is the problem of a mostly passive, reactive hero, but Franklin is so busy trying not to get the book wrong that he forgets to go for the gusto in getting it right.
The story opens in 1944 New Mexico, where growing-boy Tony (nine-year-old Luke Ganalon) feels a gentle but insistent tug-of-war for his identity between his father (Benito Martinez of The Shield), a vaquero, and his mother (Dolores Heredia), a staunch Catholic from a family of farmers. Enter Ultima (Miriam Colon), a respected elder of the community invited to stay with the Márezs. The "ultimate" in earth mothers, the old woman nicknamed "La Grande" is both a midwife (who attended to Antonio's birth) and curandera, a healer feared by some as a bruja, or witch.
The wide-eyed Tony gulps in lessons from pagan Ultima, his Christian school and church, and both sides of his family as he strives to locate his true life path, perhaps the "middle way." Franklin dutifully hits the novel's episodic and thematic highlights, judiciously editing out redundancies (like pagan business involving a "golden carp") while incorporating bits of narration lifted out of the book (sometimes clunky, they're read by an uncredited Alfred Molina).
At times, the requisite streamlining leads Franklin to bauble what should be deeply felt or at least evocative incident (like an ordeal of illness that spans days in the novel and takes seconds in the film). And despite ably providing the essential imagery of the book (Ultima's owl familiar, a threshold-marking bridge, the moon, the llano, the river), only in Tony's dreams does Franklin achieve, very briefly, anything like a startling effect. Even more damagingly, while there are plenty of serviceable performances in the movie, there's not a single exceptional one.
The film accumulates some weight as the story goes along, especially in its refusal to gloss over the novel's religious doubt (a key character is Tony's atheist orphan friend Florence) and hard stares into the existential abyss (multiple characters bite it before Tony's eyes—after the death of one sympathetic character, adult Antonio narrates, "In time, nobody remembered anything good about [him]"). While a main throughline of the magical realist plot involves a community struggle between good and evil, Anaya offers a broader perspective from Tony's father, who identifies so-called "evil" as simply that which "we don't understand."
Still, the material calls out for a more expressive cinematographic treatment. Had the film been less antiseptic and more bold in its visuals and the emotional depths of its performances, it could have been a classic; instead, it's a rather ordinary indie.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]