‘Death in the Garden’ – lost in the jungle with Luis Buñuel on MUBI and free on Kanopy

The “garden” of Luis Buñuel’s Death in the Garden (France/Mexico, 1956) is the South American jungle, but there’s death everywhere in this rarely seen Buñuel thriller.

Chark (Georges Marchal), a hard-bitten prospector wanders into a rural mining village and the middle of an uprising against the corrupt military rule. He’s hardly an innocent, but in this mercenary world he’s as close to a hero as we’ll find even as he uses the uprising for his own revenge and escape from a criminal frame-up. Some escape; the second half of the film follows Chark and a rag-tag group of mercenaries (including Simone Signoret as an opportunistic call girl) and innocents (Michel Piccoli as a naïve but sincere priest and Michèle Girardon as the deaf-mute daughter of a local miner) fleeing the violence of the uprising into the jungle.

As expected, they become lost in the “garden” which, true to Buñuel’s sensibility and his cheeky Biblical reference, is both beautiful and deadly. This 1956 Franco-Mexican co-production was one of “commercial” films of art-house director Bunuel and he delivers a wonderfully cynical thriller filled with brilliant Bunuelian flourishes and a grim sense of futility.

When Chark is arrested, he’s dragged to a church on his way to the station, where the cop kicks him in the leg to make him kneel in prayer. In the jungle, after Chark saves the priest from using his Bible to start a fire, Bunuel’s camera lands on a dead snake on the jungle floor that is suddenly overcome with ants. It writhes as if in the throes of a second death, an image that burns its way into the film. Innocence is no protection from the wrath of man or nature and salvation comes at a price: sacrifice and madness.

But Buñuel is also a solid commercial filmmaker and he delivers a tight thriller filled with cynicism right out of American film noir and an atmosphere unique to this film. The jungle scenes may be studio-bound, but the thick, smothering foliage creates a hothouse claustrophobia and the soundtrack is dense with the alien world of nature, whether it’s the oppressive white noise of the rain or the constant bird chirps and insect buzzing of day time scenes.

In French with English subtitles.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Death in the Garden [Blu-ray]
Death in the Garden [DVD]

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The Kino Lorber Blu-ray and DVD releases include commentary by film critic Sam Dhegihan, and interview with film critic Tony Rayns, and a booklet.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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