Death in the Garden, the English title of Luis Buñuel’s La Mort en ce Jardin (1956), reads like the name of a cosy Agatha Christie murder mystery. Anybody who is daft enough to imagine that is what they are going to get from the new Eureka Masters of Cinema Duel-Format (Blu-ray and DVD) release is going to be justifiably very surprised.
Shot in gloriously lurid Eastmancolour in Mexico, where the Spanish director lived in self-imposed exile following the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War, La Mort en ce Jardin is the second of three French financed films that were dubbed as Buñuel’s ‘Revolutionary triptych’, because each film examined morality in an armed struggle against a right-wing dictatorship.
To the modern eye the opening of La Mort en ce Jardin looks very much like a Mexican revolutionary Spaghetti Western from the late 1960s. A group of prospectors are busy panning for diamonds in an arid landscape when the military arrive. The prospectors are rounded up and given an ultimatum to leave as their claims have been confiscated. Just as the prospectors decide to rise up and overthrow the army garrison, Shark (Georges Marchal) a lone adventurer arrives in town and makes himself at home in Dijn (Simone Signoret) the local Madame’s house. When the army reinforcements turn up Shark goes on the run with Dijn, Castin (Charles Vanel), her elderly, diamond rich boyfriend, and Castin’s mute daughter Maria (Michele Girardot).
Hijacking the local river transport throws the gang in with missionary Father Lizardi (Michel Piccoli) and riverboat captain Chenko (Tito Junco), but when the military give chase the river is abandoned and we find ourselves thrown into an unusual jungle adventure as the mismatched band try to find their way to the Brazilian border and freedom. As you would expect the dangers facing their expedition come from within their own ranks; lust, greed, selfishness and a misplaced sense of faith prove in the end to be far more dangerous to them than the threats of wild beasts and hunger.
Many of the issues that Buñuel addresses within La Mort en ce Jardin are still relevant today. The director’s atheism and contempt for the Roman Catholic church for its collaboration with the Franco regime in Spain is exemplified in Lizardi, who urges Shark and Castin to give themselves up to the authorities despite the certainty of an instant execution and is also probably responsible for freeing Chenko to reveal their hiding place to the army. To emphasise the uselessness of religion, Lizardi packs his holy vestments and other religious items rather than food and ammunition when the boat is abandoned for the jungle.
Buñuel’s most venomous anti-Catholic barb is reserved for where Lizardi reveals his mission is to convert the indigenous people of the jungle so that they can find fulfilling work with the same exploitative corporation that had the prospectors displaced. To aid this purpose Lizardi proudly shows off the sophisticated watch that the corporation has given all the missionaries. It’s a watch that tells not just the time, but also the date, allowing the white oppressors to regulate the unfortunate souls. Lizardi does almost redeem himself towards the film’s conclusion. Here he struggles with the idea of offering up a page from his precious prayer book to use as kindling when Shark attempts to light a fire in the damp jungle conditions to cook the snake he has just killed. The futility of the ‘divine’ protection of Lizardi’s book is exposed when the camera cuts back to the snake to reveal that, during his dithering, jungle ants have infested the corpse and eaten it.
None of the characters in Buñuel’s study are flawless, in fact most of them are not particularly likeable for that matter, which probably reflects the true personalities of real people far more accurately than a 1950s jungle potboiler from Hollywood would have done. Salvation, when it does come, is at the grave misfortune of others — just as often happens in real life. La Mort en ce Jardin is a nicely acted piece of cinema with an interesting use of imagery, but what else would you expect from the man who brought us Un Chien Andalou (1929).
Blu-ray extras include: optional English subtitles, uncompressed PCM soundtrack, interviews with Michel Piccoli, film scholar Victor Fuentes and critic Tony Rayns, Masters of Cinema exclusive trailer, 24 page booklet containing archival imagery and an essay by Philip Kemp.
Film: five stars
Extras: four stars