"Bless Me, Ultima," the film based on Rudolfo Anaya's landmark Chicano novel, is a meticulously observed time capsule, a vivid re- creation of a self-contained world of Mexican-Americans in 1944 New Mexico.
It's a coming-of-age picture with a touch of magical realism, about a boy whose family witch comes to stay. It's an engaging yarn, set in a place, a time and among a people rarely represented on the big screen.
But "Ultima" is a poetic novel that becomes prosaic on the screen.
Ultima (veteran character actress Míriam Colón) doesn't call herself a "witch." Skilled with herbs and wise in the way of curses, she is young Antonio's "curandera," his aunt and protector. The boy (Luke Ganalon) is 7 and just starting school. His older brothers are away fighting World War II. His parents (Dolores Heredia and Benito Martinez) are busy with their dusty, hardscrabble farm.
Ultima arrives to teach Antonio of the healing powers of plants, the mythic role of the owl in their lives and the power of faith and superstition.
A war veteran goes mad and shoots someone. Antonio, who is taking catechism classes, wants to know, "Will he go to hell?"
"That's not for us to say. Men will do as they must," Ultima responds.
Then, a relative is "cursed" by some local witches and Ultima's true power within the family is tested. She can save him, yes.
But "When one tampers with the fate of a man, a chain of events is set in motion," she warns.
That chain is a feud between her and the family of witches she is in conflict with.
The locals are quick to accuse Ultima of being a witch, reluctant to use that word about the family of wealthy cafe owner Tenurio (Castulo Guerra). There are lynch mobs and family betrayals, soldiers returning from war with higher expectations than farming, a drunken seer who sees all and dissolute young men who spend what they earn in the village brothel.
And all along, young Antonio goes to school, watches classmates endure the discipline of the priest and thrives in spite of being teased for bringing burritos for lunch.
It's all properly colorful, but terribly flat dramatically.
Writer-director Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress") promises bullying, climactic battles between tradition and modernity and never delivers.
Alfred Molina narrates the tale, Antonio as an adult, but his adult self doesn't resolve the boy's theological debates with his nonbelieving schoolmates or have a take on what a child of 7, a fearful witness to Ultima's exorcism of a curse, might have really seen.
And in spending much of the movie on the coming-of-age story, Franklin doesn't bless the film with nearly enough "Ultima," ultimately, to make it take flight.
He loses the forest amid all those scruffy New Mexican trees.
BLESS ME, ULTIMA
Cast: Míriam Colón, Luke Ganalon, Benito Martinez, Joaquin Cosio
Director: Carl Franklin
Rated PG-13 (some violence and sexual references)