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The Lens: 'Death in the Garden' is a transition piece for Bunuel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 23, 2009 - Luis Bunuel 's life as a filmmaker was divided between two countries, neither of them his native Spain. After making two surrealist classics in Paris, he left Europe and worked for many years on Mexican melodramas before resurfacing on the international film scene in the 1950s with “Los Olvidados.” (His Mexican films have gradually come to be recognized as subtly subversive, with the director adding sly, dark touches to otherwise routine potboilers.)

Bunuel remained in Mexico until the early '60s, but his growing reputation attracted international producers and gave him the freedom to gradually drop the conventions of mainstream films in favor of his own disruptive themes.

Bunuel's 1956 “Death in the Garden,” just released on DVD by Microcinema, is something of a transitional piece, a French-Mexican co-production with the former providing the stars and the latter providing the locations.

Set in one of those anonymous revolution-torn South American countries so common in 1950s adventure films, it could easily be mistaken for a minor American B-film from the period, with a square-jaw hero and a sultry heroine, an exotic locale and various military-vs- peasant skirmishes, all photographed in crisp Eastmancolor. The story involves a handful of generally mismatched types – a Bogart-like hero, a prostitute (Simone Signoret), an old miner and his innocent, blind daughter and a priest (Michel Piccoli) – thrown together in the jungle with the military on the trail behind them and any number of unknown perils ahead.

Though “Death in the Garden” plays perfectly well as a minor action film, it's hard not to notice that it's just a little bit off, from the somewhat obsessive characters to the largely unexplained political conflicts that send them packing. There's a playful sadism here, a sense that the film will throw in anything - quicksand, a plane crash, a fit of madness – just to make the besieged party squirm. Bunuel is restrained enough to stick to generic conventions, but almost offhanded adds odd details – as in the scene where Piccoli, a priest, tears a page out of a Bible to help start a fire, then looks around to make sure no one saw him – just audacious enough to let the viewer know what he really thinks of it.

Bunuel wasn't particularly fond of “Death in the Garden”: In his far-from-reliable autobiography “My Last Sigh,” he mentions only that he was dissatisfied with the script and didn't get along with Signoret, but became friends with Piccoli, who would become a central figure in his films of the '60s and '70s. The director's reservations aren't entirely unfounded. It's illogical, lurid, confusing and conflicted ... but that's part of what makes it such fun. It's a light sketch, a work-for-hire, but one that shows the roots of the great, convention-shattering films that would follow.

Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8z6silPaOs

The Lens is provided by Cinema St. Louis.