Cut and Dried

'Bless Me, Ultima' an arid desert adaptation of celebrated novel

Directed by Richmond, Calif.–bred Carl Franklin, the adaptation of the cherished young-adult book Bless Me, Ultima is as good-looking as any movie made in New Mexico: the piñons are polished by the fine air, drying chile peppers glow with the hearty crimson of a neon sign at dusk, and the silver streams and moonscapes gleam with the purest light.

Bless Me, Ultima is a book banned with regularity—if you’ve ever seen the kind of terrified evangelicals who haunt PTA meetings, you’ll know why—and yet has become one of the bestselling works of Chicano literature in history. It centers on the post-war childhood of Antonio, or “Tony” (Luke Ganalon), the youngest son of a small-time Chicano farmer. The black-clad curandera who delivered Antonio when he was a baby, Ultima (the veteran actress Míriam Colón), comes to spend her last days with him. The name “Ultima” is significant: she is at the end of a tradition as healer and curse lifter.

Her gentle influence teaches Tony to seek out the Virgin Mary’s side of Catholicism, instead of the hell-fire-stoking religion pushed at the adobe church. (Of sinners, Tony asks the question, “Do you think if God was a woman, he would forgive them?”)

The subject matter is unique, but the approach is often clumsy. The narration couldn’t possibly sound more straight-off-the-page. Regarding his parents, “They took their truth from the earth,” narrates the elder Antonio. In the smaller parts, we get a portion of the contraction-free overemphasis actors frequently use when playing their simpler, nobler rural forebears. (I’ve seen little-theater actors who could put five syllables and 11 l‘s in the word “tortilla.”)

That’s not the problem of the player with the role of Narciso, Nayarit-born ex–James Bond villain Joaquín Cosio, who steals scenes with the ardor of Thomas Mitchell in a John Ford movie.

‘Bless Me, Ultima’ opens Friday, Feb. 22 at the Roxy Stadium 14 (85 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa).