Luis Buñuel followed 1955’s little-known That Is the Dawn with the Mexican-French co-production The Death in the Garden (also known as Gina), a precursor of sorts to his equally minor Fever Mounts in El Pao. In a nameless Latin American country, a foreigner named Shark (Georges Marchal) is caught in the middle of a political uprising between a group of oppressed diamond miners and the malicious Captain Ferrero (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos). Amid the turmoil of this banana republic revolution, Shark joins an all-star group of political refugees on a boat ride to an elusive Brazil. Though the film’s first half is fraught by the heavy machinations of plot, things take a turn for the surreal when the refugees escape into the jungle (the titular garden). After going around in circles for days, Shark discovers a downed plane full of food and luxury items, and in what is the most blatant indication that Buñuel is behind the camera, Father Lizardi (a then unknown Michel Piccoli) thanks God for this miracle only to be quickly reminded by Shark that some 50 people had to die for that miracle. The prostitute Djin (Simon Signoret) is equally humbled by hunger though it’s not long before she and Lizardi are shot dead by one of their own. This tale of heated passions and broken dreams was noticeably compromised by an insufferable shooting schedule. Buñuel had little financing for the project and was burdened by the constant changes being made to the script. More troublesome, though, was Signoret. According to Buñuel, the unruly actress missed her husband Yves Montand so much that “on her way to join us in Mexico, she slipped some Communist documents into her passport, hoping to be turned away by American Immigration.” Signoret’s frenzy becomes her character’s, enervating an otherwise humdrum melodrama.
Death in the Garden is definitely a relic, but its brownish Eastmancolor hues are attractive, with no instances of edge enhancement and only the occasional combing effect detracting from what is a fine presentation, though if the opening titles are any indication, the image may have been slightly cropped. The disc defaults to its original French audio track, though viewers will immediately notice that most of the actors were dubbed at the time of filming. No explanation is given for this in either the disc’s notes or commentary track, but the essence of the film is never lost in spite of the tinny audio presentation, even if that essence isn’t exactly worth gleaning.
First up is a very considerate commentary track by film scholar Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, who provides lively biographical and anecdotal info while drawing parallels between incidents and motifs in this film and other, more famous titles from Buñuel’s canon. Equally generous are the essays by Susan Hayward and Buñuel’s son Juan-Luis Buñuel, as well as the interviews by Michel Piccoli, who recalls his working relationship with Buñuel and throwing cats into rivers when he was a child, and film scholar Victor Fuentes, who suggests Death in the Garden was a trampoline for other Buñuel films and whose theme of exile connects it to the director’s superior The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Rounding out the disc is a stills gallery.
A minor Buñuel work, Death in the Garden is mostly notable for capturing Simone Signoret in color for the first time and at her most impatient as an actress.