Bored one day I decided to go to my local video store (yes we still have them here in good ole Athens, GA… it’s called Vision Video and even comes with its own Thurston Moore look-alike… you are jealous outside world!) and pick up a bunch of foreign language films. This box had been staring at me for some time and finally I told the box that it was creeping me out with all of the staring (I mean seriously google the box image and you will understand what I mean), took it off the shelf and rented it on a whim. A departure from most of my rentals there being carefully planned out Arrested Development and Harvey the Birdman (AAAAtttorney at LAWWWWWWWW!) seasons, Death in the Garden is an anarchistic Bunuel film from his Mexican period. (A Mexican film that is spoken in French and uses French and Italian actors… Bunuel you be crazy!) Filled with social and political commentary and surreal images, Death in the Garden can easily be revered as one of Bunuel’s gems. However through my research this film is said to be a part of his minor work which I find odd. While not perfect, the themes and the story interested me and I thought he brought a unique voice to his constant themes of anarchism and uprising. In fact I would go as far as to recommend this to the Criterion Collection for inclusion. It may not warrant the revertional treatment that the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois should get, but it is still vitally important in the filmic community.
But let me back up before I get on my pitch box. Death in the Garden is about several inhabitants in an unnamed town in the Central America/Mexico area. In this town there is a gold mine that several people who are desperate to strike it rich come to mine. It seems to be an especially fertile one because one day the government comes and seizes the mine for their own purposes. They aim to keep the gold for themselves and not to share it with the lowly citizens they govern. This brings shadows of the Franco empire that rocked Spain during World War II and Bunuel had to experience from a distance for fear of him getting executed as a dissonant. This is why it was set in Mexico and not in Spain… he was living in Mexico at the time. This does not make the men happy. They decide to stage a rebellion. Although this seems to be for the greater good, it affects every person in the town including the drifter who gets arrested and accused of robbing a town near by, the prostitute whose business will go down while the men are discussing revolution, the priest that preaches non violence and the only man who has struck it rich enough to get out but can’t find a suitable time to bring his deaf child on to a ship. Circumstances become what they may and the town becomes a dangerous place for all of these people. The man who struck it rich is accused of being a ring leader and is hunted by authorities, the drifter escapes from prison, the prostitute wants to leave and the priest needs to continue his mission. They all end up on this boat and eventually in the jungle. The jungle is so thick and deadly that the chase for them is left off because the soldiers know they are going to die. Their relationships twist and turn as the jungle does. Lack of food makes everyone do and see weird things. For instance when the drifter kills a snake and tries to make a fire, the priest tears a page out of his bible only to be replaced by the start of the fire. However when he looks down again the snake is covered in ants. (Can you say Salvador Dali?)
This motley crew’s adventures can only end in tragedy, but along the way they bond and end up having some earned human moments. In fact although there are several surreal moments, I think this is one of Bunuels most realistic films which could make this film more accessible than a Discreet Charm or an Exterminating Angel.In fact this would be a nice introduction to people who have never experienced surrealism in film before. This is why I think that Criterion Collection should make this film a part of their collection. It is a great stepping stone to Bunuel’s admittedly more complex and better films.