We could all use an Ultima in our life -- an older mentor to teach the old ways, heal terrible wounds and exact sorceress revenge on any witches in the neighborhood.
The title character in Rudolfo Anaya's acclaimed 1972 Chicano novel Bless Me, Ultima comes through unscathed, and veteran filmmaker Carl Franklin tries admirably to translate the author's poetic words to the screen. But the film often stumbles in translation, trying to define too many characters in too little time.
The narrator is Antonio, who looks back on a year of his childhood just after World War II, after an elderly town shaman moves into his rural New Mexico home. Packed into 106 minutes are a series of vignettes involving Antonio's school, church and family life.
The best source of entertainment is Ultima, played by the wonderful Miriam Colon. The actress of 50-plus years should have been a lock for an Academy Award nomination for her memorable 1996 turn as a wealthy matriarch in Lone Star. (Colon also played Al Pacino's mother in Scarface.) John Sayles' Lone Star was a much better movie, but this performance is equally vital, filed with a fiery defiance that never becomes showy or overwrought.
Beyond Antonio and Ultima, the rest of the characters are underformed, most notably the villain of the piece, a powerful saloon owner who never establishes his menace. Lost in the cinematic rush is the book's strong theme of belief, as Tony looks at his plethora of role models and wrestles with his sense of place.
The pace of Bless Me, Ultima is reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses or Lasse Hallstrom's The Shipping News -- literary adaptations that got the look right, while lacking the easy flow of the original work.
Writer and director Franklin, a Richmond, Calif., native, has a good eye for detail and tone. Fans of the book will probably enjoy the honest effort to bring some of their favorite characters on screen after so many years. Fans of Colon's work will be thrilled to see another memorable feature role deep into her career.