Death in the Garden | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Death in the Garden 

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This rarely shown French-Mexican coproduction of 1956 offers a haunting view of characters pushed to their limits. The action begins when a Latin American dictator attempts to nationalize a diamond mine and the workers there rebel. There are baroque plot twists, as befits a story of corruption that includes characters as diverse as a priest (Michel Piccoli) and a prostitute (Simone Signoret). But the film's first half is relatively pedestrian; director Luis Bunuel even said of the film, "My basic problem was the screenplay, which I somehow just couldn't get right." Halfway through, when a small group, three of whom are accused of participating in the rebellion, flee into the jungle, the film really takes off. The fleeing band becomes a microcosm of civilization, which for Bunuel is a cosmetic cover for our animal nature. The camera--often in front of the group as it advances through the jungle--traps the characters in a place that's presented both as a verdant, sensuous Eden and a labyrinthine hell. At one point the starving group find a snake and think they're saved; as they prepare to cook it Bunuel cuts to its carcass, which moves as ants devour it. This shot recalls earlier images of workers in the diamond mine scurrying about to ultimately futile ends; it also becomes a metaphor for the self-consuming nature of the characters' conflicts: after a while it's clear the trek is not progressing. Lost, the party travels in circles, and the initially disparate characters begin to seem equivalent. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus at Jackson, Saturday, May 4, 4:00, and Sunday, May 5, 2:00 and 4:00, 443-3737. --Fred Camper

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