Here’s a coming-of-age movie that feels both generic and personal.
The freshest scenes establish a unique bond between Antonio, a precocious 7-year-old, and Ultima, an aging medicine woman who behaves like Auntie Mame. Larger than life, she seems capable of working all sorts of miracles, including raising the dead.
The year is 1944, the setting is a small New Mexico town, and magic realism reigns. We’re never quite sure if we’re supposed to accept Ultima as a creature of supernatural potential. The torch-bearing local villagers would prefer to call her a witch and dispose of her.
But cooler heads prevail (in an anti-lynching scene reminiscent of “To Kill a Mockingbird”), and so do the many life lessons that Ultima teaches Antonio when she moves in with his family.
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“Why is there evil in the world?” asks the adult Antonio (voice by Alfred Molina). That’s when the generic part kicks in.
“Bless Me, Ultima” is based on an autobiographical 1972 novel, written by Rudolfo Anaya, that is widely regarded as a high point in 20th-century Chicano literature. The movie sometimes feels like an unusually handsome miniseries that’s been jammed into a two-hour running time.
Just when the well-cast actors begin to click together, the narration threatens to take over as Molina lectures us about the meaning of life.
Fortunately, the talented director, Carl Franklin (“One False Move”), gives just enough screen time to Miriam Colon (Ultima) and Luke Ganalon (Antonio) to demonstrate that they can carry a picture that’s frustratingly choppy.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org