Combustible Celluloid
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With: Simone Signoret, Charles Vanel, Georges Marchal, Michel Piccoli, Tito Junco, Raul Ramirez, Luis-Aceves Castañeda, Jorge Martinez de Hoyos, Alberto Pedret, Marc Lambert, Stefani, Michèle Girardon
Written by: Luis Buñuel, Luis Alcoriza, Raymond Queneau, Gabriel Arout, based on a novel by José-André Lacour
Directed by: Luis Buñuel
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 100
Date: 21/09/1956

Death in the Garden (1956)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Sting of the Jungle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great Luis Buñuel made this fairly obscure item during his Mexican period, but in French with French actors; perhaps he was gearing up to head over to France in a few years. Nevertheless, it's definitely from a period in which he was finding his footing, and his unique touches are not as evident as in his earlier Los Olvidados or in his later films, starting with Nazarin (1959).

Death in the Garden is set in an unnamed Latin American country, where diamond miners butt heads with the local military regime. Five mostly unconnected people find themselves caught in the middle and on the run. Miner Castin (Charles Vanel) has struck it rich and dreams of returning to France with his beautiful deaf-mute daughter Maria (Michèle Girardon). He also wants to marry the local prostitute Djin (Simone Signoret), who is probably more interested in the old man's money. Father Lizardi (Michel Piccoli) winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time as well, as does a tough-guy drifter called "Shark" (or "Chark") (Georges Marchal). The five escape town on a boat and wind up hiking through the jungle, vainly searching for food.

Like Robinson Crusoe (1952), it's a mostly commercial film, but Buñuel squeezes in many delightfully subversive moments. In one sequence, Shark finds a snake and prepares to cook it, but the crew cannot get a fire started. Father Lizardi tears a page out of his Bible to use for fuel, and then replaces it as he notices that the fire has been started. But as he replaces it and closes the book, he notices that their once-future meal has been devoured by an army of ants. In an earlier scene, Buñuel indulges his foot fetish: Maria tries on a new pair of boots and Shark temporarily gets her attention by stepping on the laces and trapping her. Critic Fernando F. Croce astutely pointed out that, coming between Robinson Crusoe and The Exterminating Angel, the film helps make up an unofficial "trapped" trilogy for Buñuel. In other words, it's not an obvious artistic masterpiece, but it is a case of a brilliant, talented director making the most out of a routine project.

Microcinema released a 2009 DVD edition, with an amazingly good the full-color transfer. It's defaulted to the French-language track, but there's also a Spanish-language track. Scholar Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz provides a commentary track, and there are interviews with surviving cast members and liner notes. In 2019, Kino Lorber released a terrific-looking Blu-ray edition, with 2.0 DTS-HD audio, optional English subtitles, and a new commentary track by Samm Deighan, a video interview with critic Tony Rayns (33 mins.), and trailers for this and for Bunuel's The Milky Way. A 12-page liner notes booklet includes an essay by Peter Tonguette.

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