I haven't seen a lot of movies from Luis Buñuel's Mexican period, but what I have been able to catch suggests to me that this fruitful work time often saw the surrealist director turning to more conventional stories rather than the looser, more anarchic films that bookended his creative career. 1956's Death in the Garden (La morte en ce jardin) is no exception. Based on a novel by José-André Lacour, it's one half political drama, one half adventure movie, with a lot of steamy melodrama mixed in.
Death in the Garden is set in a remote South American village that has sprung up around the area diamond mines. A military revolution is underway, and the new ruling class demands that the independent miners move off their claims, surrendering their land to the government. This inspires heated protests that threaten to split the town. The scoundrel Chark (Georges Marchal) unexpectedly wanders into this charged atmosphere on his way to Brazil. Where he's coming from is never really explained, though after he drifts into the bed of Djin (Simone Signoret, Diabolique [review]), the town madam, she gives him up to the police. They claim that the money belt he is wearing is full of stolen cash. It's not clear whether this is true. Chark resists his arrest, but he never really denies the charges.
Amidst all this are an upstanding priest (Michel Piccoli, Belle de Jour [review]), an old prospector (Charles Vanel), and his deaf-mute daughter (Michèle Girardon). All three are looking to get out of town, but the situation explodes before they can. Chark escapes from prison and joins the violent uprising, and the easily identifiable prospector, who is named Castin, is branded alongside Chark as one of the instigators and a bounty is placed on both of their heads. Castin has a pretty sizable cache of diamonds, and he's in love with Djin, who will help him escape and become his wife in hopes of inheriting his riches. She books herself passage on a pimp's boat, sneaks Castin and daughter on board, and is then much chagrined when Chark, who has a grudge against her, hijacks the ship. Oh, yeah, and the priest, Father Lizardi, is there, too.
That's a lot of plot for one movie, and that's just the first half. The cops take off in hot pursuit after the fugitives, and Chark and his crew run aground midway between the village and Brazil. They have to take the rest of the journey on foot, contending with a hostile jungle they are not prepared for. Greed and their natural selfishness begin to take over as they revert to animalistic ways. It's kind of an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em scenario. Humans in the wild will become wild. Here the old rascal Buñuel gets playful, filling the speakers with the cries of jungle creatures, the sounds hedging in on the wanderers as much as the trees. It's a harsh environment where the strongest isn't always the most obvious candidate. Chark--whose name is meant to sound like "Shark," just as Lizardi is a "lizard"--kills a snake, and the snake carcass is set upon by fire ants. The closer you get to the ground, it seems, the deadlier the predator.
Death in the Garden is fun to watch, full of Buñuel's trademark pranksterism and evocative imagery. He plays it larger here, enjoying the wide emotional expanse the potboiler provides him. I do think, however, that the more focused first half is more interesting. The communist-leaning message gives Death in the Garden some bite, and the action sequences and dirty dealing make for an exciting plot. The jungle trek, on the other hand, feels more conventional and overly long. The broad strokes don't work as well on the confined canvas.
Things pick back up in the final reel, when all the craziness starts to take its toll. With the Promised Land in site, the last vestiges of civility drop. It's a cynical ending, paying off on Buñuel's conceit that the bad will make good and the good will go bad, and actually full of quite a few surprises. In fact, regardless of the familiarity of the territory or even the slowness of some of the walking through it, Buñuel rarely makes the predictable choice. I assume he picked such typical stories for the intended purpose of making them atypical, and he does just that. You know, it strikes me that if this script had been shot in Hollywood at the same time as Luis Buñuel was shooting it down in Mexico, it could have been a fairly decent Raoul Walsh picture. As it is, it's a fairly decent Luis Buñuel one and worth checking out.