I must confess that I really never expected to see a jungle drama from master surrealist Luis Buñuel. As it turns out, Senior Buñuel did make such a film in 1956, somewhere during his minimalist Mexican period. Although it is not as bizarrely outrageous as some of the filmmaker’s earlier or later works, Death In The Garden (La Mort En Ce Jardin) is still worth a look-see, especially for Buñuel fans.
We open in an unnamed South American village, wherein local diamond miners are all given a bad break of news. It seems that the government has gotten wise to the fact that diamonds = money, and so they tell all the miners to piss off immediately — all of the country’s minerals belong to the state. While the rest of the miners (one of whom is played by The Aztec Mummy’s Luis Aceves Castañeda) are intent on starting a revolution, a foolish old man (Charles Vanel) is determined to take his deaf-mute daughter (Michèle Girardon) back to France, along with the village prostitute (Simone Signoret, a year after Les Diaboliques, which also featured Vanel), whom he has fallen madly in love with.
Thrust into the mix is a foreigner (Georges Marchal), who is almost immediately robbed by the town’s corrupt officials and tossed into a cell for a crime he did not commit (lesson: don’t venture past Mexico if you’re white). Escaping prison with the unwilling aid of a priest (Michel Piccoli), the foreigner is more than happy to help the miners start a rebellion. When the unruly fun soon comes to an end, the foreigner and the old man wind up with bounties on their heads. And so, they make a break for Brazil via the river, with the priest, the prostitute, and the old man’s daughter in two. Of course, fate is unwilling to help them in any way, and a patrol boat forces them to hightail it into the jungle, where the second (and most dangerous) half of their adventure awaits.
Transflux Films and Microcinema International bring us one of the more obscure chapters in Buñuel’s filmography via a nice new HD transfer from a 35mm archival print. The box claims that the presentation is 1.66:1, although the film is actually shown full frame (1.33:1). This Eastmancolor movie has held up very well over the years, and boasts some fairly strong colors and contrast. Two soundtracks are available here: the original French mono stereo (in which most of the Spanish actors are dubbed), and a Spanish mono stereo dub (in which the French actors are dubbed). English subtitles are provided.
When it comes to fifty-four-year-old Spanish/French movies released on DVD for the first time in North America, the last thing I expect are special features — even if it is a Buñuel film. And yet, Transflux and Microcinema have graced Death In The Garden with a couple of goodies. First off is an audio commentary with film scholar Ernesto B. Acevedo-Munoz (in English, FYI), who gives us the history of the film and its famous filmmaker. Next up are two interviews, one with actor Michel Piccoli, and the other with Buñuel/film historian Victor Fuentes. A still gallery and 12-page booklet by Juan-Luis Buñuel and Susan Hayward round up the bonus materials.
While the amount of political and social commentary is somewhat commonplace in a human drama such as this, Death In The Garden has a rather different ambiance about it, and may not seem like your average Buñuel film at first (e.g. people do not sit down to toilets at the dinner table or become inexplicably trapped in a room, and neither Satan nor Jesus appear). But, once you’ve viewed it in its entirety, you’ll definitely notice some touches that are positively Buñuelian. Either way, I say give it a shot.