Friday, March 12, 2010

"We Are All Guilty": Death in the Garden (1956)

It’s always a thrill to go back and watch the early films of a director whose biggest successes came later in life. It’s this very pleasure that’s made it such a joy to catch up with some of Luis Bunuel’s films from the 1950s, many of which were only released on DVD for the first time last year. Most of the films come from the period when Bunuel was working in exile in Mexico, and they all display that very Bunuelian characteristic of being delightfully subversive and political at the same time that they often masquerade as straightforward adventure stories. 1956's Death in the Garden, which I just caught up with, is a perfect example. While it might not display the same feel for the surreal as the movies he made in France, it does show that, among his many other talents, Bunuel was a master at spinning a good ‘ol fashioned yarn. Beyond all else, it's proof that even when he was working as a hired hand within the constraints of a studio system, Bunuel was no less adept at making something incisive, thoughtful, and downright weird.

The film follows that classic setup where a group of people stranded in an extreme situation come to serve as microcosm for society at large. Bunuel being Bunuel, the extreme situation is a political uprising in a South American mining camp, and the stranded cast of characters includes a prostitute and (who else?) a Catholic priest. They’re both part of a group that’s taken hostage by a roguish French adventurer, who leads them into them into the jungle in order to escape from the local military.

It’s when the action gets moved to the unforgiving setting of the jungle that Death in the Garden really kicks into gear. Unlike a lot of directors, Bunuel doesn’t go out of his way to romanticize the beauty or purity of wild nature (just look at the film’s title). Instead, he portrays it as brutal and godless anarchy—a false paradise where any small misstep could mean death. This is all summed up rather succinctly in an early shot that depicts a snake being consumed by an army of fire ants, and it’s carried through as the weary runaways start to fall prey to the tests of the jungle one after another. Even more noticeable than the detail in which Bunuel documents the terrors of the wild is a high pitched squeal—insects? birds? a bad mic?—that accompanies a good many of the jungle scenes. It’s hard to say if it was intentional or not, but either way it definitely helps to give the viewer a sense of the intolerable conditions the characters are dealing with.

Bunuel’s camera and his blocking are pretty conventional—even stagy, at times—but the sophistication and audacity of his ideas makes up for what are otherwise some pretty forgetful stylistic choices. That being said, there are a few great little moments that remind you that this was the guy who had already made Un Chien Andalou, and who would later make The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. One of my favorites comes midway through the film when he abruptly cuts from a shot of the green labyrinth of the jungle to a soundless, stationary shot of cars driving by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at night. It’s a jarring transition that’s only made all the more affective when the shot cuts back to the jungle to show the character of Castin, an aging miner who dreams of opening a restaurant back in Europe, wistfully looking at a post card that depicts that very scene.

Thematically, Death in the Garden is certainly a rehash of several of Bunuel’s time-honored themes, but they are presented here with more restraint than they would be in his later films. First and foremost, as usual, is his antagonistic take on piety, which is personified here in the form of a naïve and well-meaning priest who seems oblivious to the fact that he’s being used to civilize the local Indians only so that they can be exploited for cheap labor. This is emblematic of the opinion that Bunuel—an avowed atheist whose iconoclastic position in the media often overshadowed the real subtlety of his theological ideas—seemed to hold on religion throughout his career. For him, it seems that the message of religion is not the problem. It’s that the figures in power—usually priests, politicians, and aristocrats—abuse it for their own gain at the expense of the masses, often without even knowing it. This, too, is expressed in a scene where the French adventurer called Chark is arrested and brutally beaten by soldiers who, in a darkly comic twist, stop off at the church for a quick prayer on the way to the jailhouse.

That’s the kind of subversive aside that all of these early Bunuel films manage to sneak in, and not just on religion, either. As a character says at one point in Death in the Garden, “we are all guilty,” and Bunuel made sure to be an equal opportunity social critic. Other movies (like The Young One, Simon of the Desert, and the early masterpiece The Exterminating Angel) target everything from racism and sexual abuse to the excesses of the upper class. That they’re always just as funny as they are incisive is only all the more proof of Bunuel’s untouchable position as the cinema’s greatest provocateur.

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