½* (out of four)
A movie makes quite a grand promise by beginning with a voiceover proclaiming, “Why is there evil in the world? Let me start from the beginning.” I mean, sheesh, this could be a long story.
No worries: In the shamelessly earnest and absurdly shallow “Bless Me, Ultima,” “the beginning” is when Antonio (Luke Ganalon) was seven and an old woman (Miriam Colon) known as “Ultima” or “La Grande” moves in with the family to live out her days. Rest assured, this isn’t just one of those stories where everyone treats the elder character as if they are an almighty being and that character says broad, supposedly powerful things such as, “Life is never beyond hope” and, “A man’s destiny must unfold like a flower.” It’s also one that suggests Ultima is a witch while condemning another person for accusing her of being a witch—after Ultima uses her magic powers to cure a man of another witch’s curse and cause harm to the rival witches. A bit hypocritical, no?
Set in 1944 New Mexico and dully narrated by the British (and uncredited) Alfred Molina, “Bless Me, Ultima” is adapted by writer-director Carl Franklin (“The Devil in the Blue Dress”) from Rudolfo Anaya’s all-time bestselling Chicano novel. It must be a million times better on the page. (It was, after all, endorsed by Laura Bush.)
At times, the film almost capitalizes on kids’ efforts to understand the world and beliefs passed down by their parents, as Antonio and his fellow students discuss sin and confession. Then again, his doubts—take a wild guess what happens to Antonio’s classmate who doesn’t believe—disappear without any examination or reassurance. Like “Life of Pi” with even more devotion to bland messages such as “embrace life,” “Bless Me, Ultima” tiptoes around questions of faith and runs away from any incident that might push someone in the other direction.
The film, which should have been animated to enhance the magical realism, also suggests Antonio experiences bullying because of his heritage. But it dismisses that as well, with particular unwillingness to address how his older brothers might feel about fighting in WWII for a country that might not fully accept them. Instead, “Ultima” includes a subplot about Antonio wanting to out-race a kid who seems to always be waiting by a bridge, ready to sprint.
Speaking of speed, one of the film’s most hilariously misjudged moments comes during a time-lapse passage of tumbleweeds blowing quickly across the screen. You know a movie’s a drag when the idea of time flying is that the tumbleweeds are going faster than usual.
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