Monday, December 12, 2011

Luis Buñuel's La mort en ce jardin (Death in the Garden)

Dismage of France and Producciones Tepeyac of Mexico join together in 1956 to recreate José-André Lacour’s La mort en ce jardin into an adventure film.  Translated into English as Death in the Garden, the film gets its dramatic and surrealistic touch from director Luis Buñuel.  Luis Buñuel, Luis Alcoriza, Raymond Queneau, and Gabriel Arout write the screenplay and the Spanish and French dialogue for the actors.  Many of the performers hail from France.  Georges Marchal plays Chark, a strong, amoral, and independent adventurer that has little regard for authority.  Simone Signoret acts as Djin, a prostitute who survives by plotting her next move with anyone she can take advantage of.  Michel Piccoli plays Father Lizardi, a Catholic missionary with a well-meaning yet slightly vain personality.  Charles Vanel acts as Castin, an old diamond prospector that dreams of returning to France to start his own restaurant.  Michèle Girardon plays María Castin, Castin’s deaf-mute daughter who is innocent, loving, and devout to the Catholic faith.  Tito Junco, an actor that comes from Mexico, plays the hoggish and opportunistic Chenko.  The producers for this particular movie are Oscar Dancigers and Jacques Mage.  Cinedis distributes the film at the time of the movie’s release.  Les Grands Films Classiques obtains the copyrights in 1996 and Transflux Films releases the movie on DVD in 2009.

The DVD includes: French and Spanish soundtracks with English subtitles, a recollection entitled “An Afternoon in Saint-Germain Des Pres” by Juan-Luis Buñuel, an excerpt of an essay called “Simone Signoret: The Star as Cultural Sign” by Susan Hayward, an interview with Michel Piccoli, another interview with Victor Fuentes, an audio track with commentary about the film by Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a still gallery.  All of these extras help to situate the patron in understanding the cultural and academic significance that Death in the Garden has within the Buñuel canon.  I especially recommend listening to Acevedo-Muñoz’s commentary.  He gives a step-by-step demonstration on how to analyze a film by recognizing patterns, images, viewpoints, and motifs.  He offers insights from other Buñuelian works but does not digress into tangents.  I would love to take a film class from him if the opportunity arises.

Death in the Garden does have its share of Buñuelian touches and surrealistic moments.  Right at the beginning, we see a conflict between the working prospectors and the authoritarian military leadership.  Whether feigned or not, the military personnel notify the diamond prospectors of a constitutional proclamation confiscating all claims and property for the government.  The workers resent the move and aggressively protest against their leaders.  Buñuel consistently shows imagery of haughty military or police forces suppressing or threatening the disadvantaged and hardly armed working class.  The contrast between liberal or communist ideals and heavy-handed fascist enforcement cannot be clearer.  A surrealistic moment—which is especially antiocularcentric in its gesture—happens when Chark stabs a guard in the eye with a fountain pen before he escapes the jail cell and prison.  Eventually, the tension between the two sides boils over into an attempted coup and the main characters flee into the jungle to escape their general and particular dangers.

The second half of the film has all the main characters combined into one group and hijacked by Chark.  It begins at this point when surrealistic elements come to the forefront.  Buñuel rarely incorporates music into any of his films, but the continuous animal sounds of the jungle act as a surrealistic orchestra that reflects the mood of the group or the augury of things to come.  We never see the animals that make these sounds, suggesting a sort of ghostly presence, an ominous gaze, or a conscious forest.  The jungle recreates a type of the Garden of Eden, although in this garden, which Acevedo-Muñoz labels as a “garden of evil,” the dwellers dwindle into death or madness.  The snake that inhabits this garden gets killed and eaten by the inhabitants instead of tempting them into some forbidden act.  A striking surrealistic image in this film shows the serpent’s carcass being moved by fire ants.  The group descends into violence under the oppression of brutal nature.  The only relief seems to come when the group comes upon a crashed airplane with no survivors but full of bourgeois trappings.  Yet this turn of events does not guarantee that all of the members will survive.

Another characteristic of Buñuel that I would like to understand more is his anticlericalism or anti-Catholicism.  I suppose his sentiments come from his experiences with events leading up to and including the Spanish Civil War, but it would be nice to know if he has had personal experiences that relate to seeing or reacting to hypocrisy and corruption in the clergy during his formative years.  (I was quite surprised when quite a few people in Spain told me about their personal experiences with wayward priests.)  Disaffected apostates that leave the membership of their hegemonic religions do not tend to leave the same alone.

In this movie, two instances come to mind that give me occasion to conclude in this manner.  In the first scene, Father Lizardi has an argument with Chark about the Catholic Church’s role in proselytizing to the local tribes of the New World.

Father Lizardi. – Castin, where are you taking me?
Castin. – Wherever you like, Father.
Father Lizardi. – Leave me near the Santa Rosalia Mission, with the Venantes Indians.
Chark. – They’d be better off without you.  At least nobody would force them to work.
Father Lizardi. – I’m here to save their souls.  Thanks to the mission, many tribes hear the word of God.
Chark. – From the mouth of their exploiters.
Father Lizardi. – We’re not responsible for the overseers.
Chark. – No, but they follow you wherever you go.  They must really like you guys!
Father Lizardi. – I refuse to argue with you!  I insist on disembarking at once!
Chark. – I’m in command here.  Get that into your head and we’ll get on nicely.
Father Lizardi. – I have only one master.  I’m not afraid of you.
Chark. – We’ll see.
Father Lizardi. – Castin, you’re wrong to associate with…
Chark. – …a scoundrel.
Castin. – What could I do?  I was innocent and they put a price on my head.

Chark’s opinions and arguments are not unusual for a man of his nature, but Father Lizardi falters in defending his position.  People in religious positions find themselves in a quandary, because their belief systems are not readily verifiable in the short term.  Suppose Father Lizardi really tries to perform his office in an upright and honest fashion.  He acts on faith and belief that do not prove themselves true until long after the act or even after death.  He can vouch for his own actions, but defending his comrades or the larger system becomes difficult when they follow their own policies.  Hence Father Lizardi is unjustly interrogated by Chark who accuses him of those abuses that he doesn’t commit.  On the other hand, if Father Lizardi is not innocent, but condones wholeheartedly the practices of his superiors, then Father Lizardi evasion of obvious discrepancies shows his motives are not exactly altruistic.  (Father Lizardi hypocritically stashes jewelry away near a tree after lecturing María Castin not to “take things that belong to the dead.”)  On top of that, the injunction to “repay evil for evil” already places Father Lizardi in a tight spot (1 Peter 3:9).  Father Lizardi has lost the debate before it has even begun.

The second instance shows Father Lizardi relating a story to the rest of the party one night during a downpour.  Drenched from head to toe, everyone tries to sleep comfortably despite the uncomfortable conditions.  Father Lizardi, in a sort of confession, reminisces about a colleague’s idiosyncrasies of stealing soft-boiled eggs and eating them.

Father Lizardi. – My friends, do you hear me?  It may be that hunger is making me delirious but I’m obsessed with a story about soft-boiled eggs.  It happened when I was at the seminary.  I must tell you about it.  I was in my second year of theology.  I remember the refectory with its rows of tables like it was yesterday.  We were 10 to a table.  The seminarist who served us was a fat kid—a good soul—we had nothing to reproach him for except something that happened each time we had soft-boiled eggs.  Four or five always disappeared.  There was no explaining these disappearances.  Until one day someone saw him swallowing the eggs two by two on the way from the church to the refectory.  I mean, from the kitchen to the refectory.  It didn’t stop him from becoming coadjutor back home.  My mother’s name was Mary.

During his story, the rest of the party ignores him or, if the group is listening to his story, does not acknowledge him.  Father Lizardi’s oneiric confession suspiciously reveals a subtle surrealistic or psychoanalytic revelation regarding ambition and favoritism within the seminary’s ranks.  Father Lizardi’s self-correction from church to kitchen passes off as a parapraxis that could reveal some sort of scandal that Father Lizardi’s doesn’t intend fully to divulge.  If we suppose the party is listening to his story despite obvious signs to the contrary, we can conclude that the party does not react to this revelation because either they condone such behavior as being socially acceptable or think that they are powerless to change things.  Another possibility could be that they think he is just dreaming out loud about his hunger or mother, topics that Acevedo-Muñoz explores in his commentary.

The thing I most enjoyed in this movie is the cinematography and the scenery.  The jungles, rivers, and lakes look lush and beautiful.  The village where the action takes place has gorgeous shots of cathedrals and squares.  One sequence shows an angle from the soldiers’ point of view while confronted by the prospectors.  A few stones are thrown from the crowd and make their way toward the camera.  The agility of the actors to throw those stones at or near the camera is nothing but impressive.  One stone even swerves like a curveball that nearly misses a soldier.  The camera lets the events tell the story and moves economically and efficiently.

I would rate this movie with a PG rating.  Sexual activity is implied and the word “prostitute” is never used.  There is a scene depicting animal cruelty and slaughter.  Violence against women is shown or is implied as in a scene in which Chark hits Djin three times for handing him over to the police for no apparent reason than to pilfer his money.  Violence in other contexts is mild.

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