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His avant-garde career cut off by the Spanish Civil War, director Luis Buñuel made an impressive cinematic comeback in Mexico with pictures like Subida al Cielo and the internationally acclaimed Los Olvidados. By the middle 1950s he was ready to reach out for larger productions and larger audiences. 1956's Death in the Garden is a Mexican-French co-production with big-name French stars, filmed on location in Mexico.
The French title La mort in ce jardin is said to actually translate as "Death in this Garden", perhaps to make more of an issue of the film as a social morality play. The movie is considered the second of a Buñuel political trilogy that includes Cela s'appelle l'aurore and El fièvre monte à El Pao. They aren't necessarily about actual revolutions but involve various kinds of insurrection against power structures in Latin America.
Hardworking diamond miners in an unnamed South American country are infuriated when, just as it looks that their efforts will yield results, the repressive government revokes their claim and orders them to leave. Their grievances turn into a bloody riot. A disparate group of people is affected. Having hidden away a sack of uncut diamonds, miner Castin (Charles Vanel of The Wages of Fear) plans to return to France with his deaf-mute daughter María (Michèle Girardon) and the local prostitute Djin (Simone Signoret), if she'll accept his marriage proposal. The military authorities declare Castin a ringleader of the uprising, and want him held for execution. Also fleeing is adventurer-criminal Chark (George Marchal of Cela s'appelle l'aurore and The Colossus of Rhodes). In his one day in town Chark has already been robbed and imprisoned by the corrupt police, with the aid of Djin and her crooked partner Chenko (Tito Junco), a pimp who operates a riverboat. Chark escapes and helps the rioters blow up a building. The idealistic Father Lizzardi (a young Michel Piccoli) decides that all must flee -- even Djin, who is now considered an accessory for hiding Castin in her rooms.
All of these people end up aboard Chenko's boat. Chark takes Chenko prisoner and leads the group's freedom flight to Brazil. They tangle with the army, which eventually withdraws in the certainty that the escapees will perish in the jungle. But even when left in peace this small sampling of humans can't seem to cooperate with each other.
Death in the Garden perhaps spreads itself out a bit too thinly. Henri-Georges Clouzot blamed an American oil company for all the evil in The Wages of Fear, but Buñuel indicts all of society, its corrupt leaders and the powerless citizens, in one fell swoop. The government has only to issue an edict to steal the fruits of the miners' labor, but no solidarity exists among working men either. Castin and Chark will surely be betrayed for the reward on their heads. The mercenary Djin sells out Chark without a second thought. Chenko bears false witness against Chark just as casually, condemning him to death for a few pesos. The average nice guys in the bars can't be depended upon either. When Father Lizzardi covers for Castin, the townspeople automatically assume that the Priest is another of Djin's customers and unfaithful to his vows. On the other hand, Lizzardi is himself an unknowing pawn of the mining companies -- he proudly shows off the watch they gifted him.
Out in the wild things get worse, not better, allowing Buñuel to score his familiar negative points about human nature. The individualist Chark takes responsibility for the others, making it possible for them to attempt a cross-country escape through the jungle. Following the South American literary tradition of La selva, the jungle is a place that silently swallows up those who dare to enter. With typical narrative logic, Buñuel simply allows his characters to follow their true natures. The scheming Chenko maroons his captors without adequate food. Morale breaks down. María is drawn to Chark, while Castin becomes disoriented and eventually goes mad. Father Lizzardi's tolerant and trusting nature leads directly to serious trouble. Every time Chark allows the padre to follow his humanitarian instincts, something goes very wrong. In this jungle (or Garden of Eden), only Chark's unsentimental pragmatism makes sense.
Georges Marchal is a fair-minded but coarse hero. His introductory shot shows him "giving the finger" to a troop of armed soldiers pointing rifles, something we don't expect in any movie made in 1956. All the performances are good but viewers looking for standout scenes with Signoret and Vanel will probably be disappointed. Standard "star showcase" scenes usually involve characters transcending their base natures, something that doesn't happen in this director's movies. Buñuel's human specimens follow a logical route to their own destruction. All that's needed is a shove from a hostile society.
Classic surreal Buñuelisms are few but strong. In one scene the starving party tries desperately to start a fire to cook a partially skinned python. When the fire is finally lit, they look over to see the snake covered in ants ... and twisting as if still alive. Audiences find it disturbing when one of the characters sits by the river, idly tossing away precious diamonds. Seeing a fortune go to waste is a bigger jolt than scenes in which characters are killed. The moment seems designed by Buñuel to demonstrate our essentially bourgeois materialism.
The last act sees the survivors discover the wreck of a crashed passenger plane, like primitive men finding an artifact from the future. The plane carries food they can eat, but also clothes and luxuries. The women take the clothing of the dead to compete for Chark's affections. The restoration of the material world triggers a resurgence of selfish behavior, and hastens the violent ending.
Transfluxfilms and Microcinema's Death in the Garden is a quality DVD from excellent source materials. As I have not once in the past forty years seen this title showing up in theaters, special venues or video, it's a very welcome find. The flat transfer seems proper even though the main titles are framed for an image at least as wide as 1:66; perhaps the titles were re-shot to allow screenings after widescreen became the norm. The disc comes with full audio tracks in Spanish and the original French, with English subtitles.
The movie is filmed in bright color by Jorge Stahl, Jr., (Garden of Evil, The Beast of Hollow Mountain) on some of the same locations used for Vera Cruz. The main town is clearly the French fortress from the conclusion of the Robert Aldrich film. The emaciated storekeep is played by Francisco Reiguera, Orson Welles' Don Quixote.
The disc extras include an interesting Buñuel-centric audio commentary by Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz. Film scholar Victor Fuentes is interviewed on camera, along with actor Michel Piccoli. The amusing Piccoli insists that he won't divulge anything personal about Buñuel, and then offers two or three funny anecdotes anyway. A booklet contains an essay by Juan-Luis Buñuel and an essay excerpt on Simone Signoret by critic Susan Hayward.
Even Raymond Durgnat got his plot synopsis wrong for Death in the Garden, which shows us how rare the picture once was. Microcinema's DVD release will be a must-have for Buñuel fans, most of whom will go way out of their way to see more of his pictures.
Research: Raymond Durgnat, Luis Buñuel University of California Press, 1967.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Death in the Garden rates:
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