Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel / France-Mexico, 1956):
(La Mort en ce Jardin; The Diamond Hunters; Evil Eden)

The first half of this usually neglected Luis Buñuel work is a plot-heavy potboiler delineating the values cherished by the characters; the second half, splendidly scored to a cacophony of animal growls and cries, is an implacable stripping of said values. In an unnamed South American republic, the paths of a disparate group of people -- loutish adventurer Georges Marchal, hooker Simone Signoret, missionary Michel Piccoli, diamond miner Charles Vanel and his deaf and mute daughter Michèle Girardon -- converge with the outbreak of a revolution against the fascist state. Crammed inside a trader's barge, they elude the authorities until they have to slice through the thick, rainy Amazon jungle in search of the elusive border into Brazil. Starrier and with a fatter budget than most of the director's productions, the film is often chalked off as an impersonal detour into commercial filmmaking. What kind of "impersonal" filmmaking can accommodate a skinned snake devoured by red ants? Piccoli's delirious monologue about soft-boiled eggs? The sudden shot of bustling nocturnal Paris freeze-framing into Vanel's snapshot before being tossed into the fire? Of course, Buñuel's vision goes beyond facile "touches." Forming with Robinson Crusoe and The Exterminating Angel a casual "stranded" trilogy, the film is less about eroding beliefs than acknowledging the fragility of their certainty -- the miracle that saves the characters' lives (a plane crash) costs fifty others. Though Marchal's sullen survivor anchors Buñuel's concept of the brutal practicality of life, it is Piccoli's padre who obviously fascinates him the most. Piously advocating political submission in civilization, the rigidity of his dogma threatens to give way to corporeal needs in the wilderness, where the pages of a Bible are of more use as bonfire fuel. (The director's following film, Nazarin, is a masterful expansion of this sketch.) With Tito Junco, Raúl Ramírez, and Jorge Martínez de Hoyos.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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