Friday, June 26, 2020

Death in This Garden

Piccoli in the Garden

The following was written for Eugenio Renzi's Ciné-Club Hebdo where it appeared today, translated into French, in acknowledgement of the recent death of the great actor Michel Piccoli. This is the original English-language version.


In Luis Buñuel’s underseen feature La Mort en ce jardin [Death in This Garden], a French-Mexican color co-production from 1956, Michel Piccoli plays a missionary on the verge of setting out to convert an Indian tribe to the benefits of Christian salvation. The wider premise of the film involves a group of French nationals eager to flee the government (and the colonialists) when the latter interfere with the operating contract of a diamond mine; Piccoli, or Father Lizzardi, falls in with the capitalists. What his role lacks in the way of a psychologically fleshed-out characterization is made up for in its service as the component of a group-cipher (Buñuel’s film is less Hawksian than Kubrickian) whose goal it is to wind through the jungle and arrive on the other side of the Brazilian border: a world conceived across the fundamental gap between servitude and service, with Lizzardi’s fortunes dictated by innate calling. I’ve always sensed something of a Piccolian axiom, that fine thread which connects the actor’s roles evermore to a God (hence, as a servitor of the Entity and Its professed dogma) but which also symbolizes the thin line between the aforementioned impulse and the Luciferian “non serviam.” (Contrast his parts in Moretti’s Habemus Papam and Bonello’s De la guerre.) Piccoli’s was a (lower-case-C) catholic dimension, and we need look no further than La Mort en ce jardin to discover him in safari-surplice warning his sheep, “Don’t bring God into this.” Surely not, for despite the presence of the serpent (killed and prepared for alimentary sustenance), Buñuel’s company traverse no hellscape but simply the natural world: the serpent will ultimately be devoured by fire ants, and the stumbled-upon wreck of an airplane will at once with its dark and ravaged maw signify the manna of cargo-cults and the black abyss into which all calculations break down. “Hope,” to paraphrase Piccoli, Buñuel, and co-writer Raymond Queneau, “is all that's kept us on our feet.”


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