The trick to sincerity in movie-making is to play it subtle and not forget human short-comings. The days of black and white heroes are long gone. If you want to engage audiences today, protagonists need relatable short-comings, even if they are 7-year-old boys especially if they are 7-year-old boys.
Bless Me, Ultima, the film based on the book of the same name precious to Chicano culture tries too hard to celebrate little Antonio (Luke Ganalon) as a child seemingly born with empathy and a sense of what is right. The best coming-of-age films featuring characters that young, like A Christmas Story or My Life As a Dog, dwell on the delightful ineptitude of children. That’s not to say children that age should not seem to have a characteristic innocent wisdom about them. Even though the 6-year-old hero of this year’s Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild has an undeniable deeper perception of the world, the filmmakers do not forget her precociousness.
Antonio seems to have a fully formed frontal lobe, by contrast, something that does not happen to humans until the age of 25. The noticeable problem stems from an overly literal adaptation of the source material. The film uses first person voice-over lifted straight from the book, which is Antonio’s voice as an adult. That may be where the film’s fundamental clunkiness lies. The book unfolds in reflection, allowing the child to speak through his adult version with the benefit of hindsight. To take the words so literally, as this film seems to do, twists the perspective to this oddball level that does not always jibe with the mind of a 7-year-old.
Then there is the elderly woman he seems to look up to most, Ultima, a curandera, or healer. Many in Antonio’s New Mexico town turn to her when medicine fails. Though at first seemingly frightened by whispers of her witchcraft, as soon as he lays eyes on her, he takes her hand and accepts her. “You’ll never die; I’ll take care of you,” the boy says out of the blue, almost unprompted (maybe she had already placed an unseen spell on him?). Though presented as a black-cloaked figure she imparts wisdom to the boy about an interconnected quality of the world that trumps Catholicism. “Was Ultima’s magic stronger than the saints?” a voice-over of the adult Antonio wonders. She does all she can to help people and brings the boy along as a sort of helper, even though she may have poisoned him during one spell early in the film, implied in a dream-like sequence. It’s an odd sort of mixed message in a mostly high-gloss indie film.
Speaking of the film’s sheen, director Carl Franklin (away from feature directing since Out of Time with Denzel Washington) lays it on heavy for a dusty New Mexico town in 1946. The old cars and clothes seem a little too fresh for a mise-en-scène that should better emphasize life on the fringes. Cinematographer Paula Huidobro does bring a lot to the look of the picture as far as mood and atmosphere. She shines particularly well during the night scenes. However, the editing by Alan Heim and Toby Yates undermines her work with associative cuts indulging in melodrama, if not overtly manipulative sentimentality.
There are some moments that allow the viewer to forgive the film’s faults. The appreciation of the land is captured soulfully in transitional shots with contemplative voice over by Fernando Aldaz. There are scenes when the boy must alone confront the scariest man in town, Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), whose three daughters practice black magic. The fear of a cruel adult projecting his anger toward an innocent child never felt more visceral. But for all its well-intended affection for the source material, the film falters by failing to acknowledge a more subtle perspective that defines the original story-telling. It makes a case of how hard it is to adapt one medium to another and how the success of a story in one cannot always translate to the other.
Bless Me, Ultima is rated PG-13 and runs 106 min. It premieres in South Florida at several multiplexes today, Friday, Feb. 22. Theaters in Miami-Dade County include: AMC Aventura 24, Cobb Dolphin 24, Southland Mall 16, AMC Sunset Place, Miami Lakes 17, Mall of the Americas 14, Muvico Hialeah 12; in Broward County: Cinemark Paradise 24, Regal Sawgrass 23. For other US cities visit the film’s official website (this is a hyperlink).