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    The Decalogue

    A perfect 10

    Director Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Decalogue" — a sometimes brutal, often profound series based on the Ten Commandments — challenges you to figure out how to be a moral person in a world with no easy answers.


    "The Decalogue," made for Polish TV during the last years of martial law in the 1980s, was for years little more than a rumor. Praised by critics and academics as one of the great filmmaking achievements of our time, it was almost impossible to see except in brief runs on a couple of New York screens. Now it's been rediscovered, shown at several venues over the last six months and released on video, and there's no reason to miss this profound, beautiful and sometimes painful series of films.

    Original title: Dekalog 1 through Dekalog 10.
    Directed by: Krzysztof Kieslowski.
    Written by: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
    In Polish with English subtitles.
    Krzysztof Kieslowski — the late director of "Blue," "White," "Red," and one of my very favorite films, "The Double Life of Veronique" — said little about the intention of "The Decalogue," but it has been seen as an attempt to rethink moral questions in the declining years of communism. The films are inspired by the Ten Commandments, but the connection is never explicit. There's no film that simply illustrates the punishment you'll suffer if you, for example, covet your neighbor's wife. Instead, most of the films put characters into situations in which they cannot obey one commandment without breaking others. Every story is a moral dilemma with grippingly human consequences.

    The Decalogue  
    Among the most ambiguous episodes — number seven, which connects it to the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Steal" — a young woman suddenly quits school, kidnaps her 6-year-old sister and attempts to flee to Canada. "Are we hiding?" the youngster asks excitedly, thinking she's playing a game with her big sister. "No — escaping!" says sis. "Shall we play a joke on mother?" As the story unfolds, we find out that the little girl is not the woman's little sister but her daughter — the woman's mother took custody of the little girl at birth after her teenage daughter's pregnancy, and kept the true parentage a secret. So who really stole the child — the grandmother at birth or the biological mom now? Is the young woman failing to "honor thy mother," or is the grandmother dishonoring her daughter's own mother-daughter relationship? What if this theft was really in the best interest of the child?

    (Episode 9 — "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness" — picks up this question in the story of a woman who inadvertently discovers in a letter that the man who has raised her is not her real father.)

    The most disturbing episode was released almost a decade ago under the name "A Short Film About Killing". Episode 5 ("Thou Shalt Not Kill"), about a murderer sentenced to death and a lawyer who tries to save him, is especially hard to take. The question is, is the state justified in taking the man's life? It's hard to pity the condemned man — we see the horror of his crime in more than enough detail and the film doesn't try to humanize him more than a little. But will his execution be any less brutal just because the state orders it and it's carried out behind the prison walls where those responsible don't have to see it?

      The Decalogue
    The stories are unconnected (in fact, each uses a different cinematographer for a different look), except that the characters all come from the same dingy housing tower and, in a touch that Kieslowski used in his later films as well, characters from one episode often pop up in the background of another. In one case, literally — in episode 2, a doctor faces a serious ethical dilemma, and in episode 8 a philosophy professor puts exactly the same question out for discussion in her class. As with most of Kieslowski's films, you've got to pay attention to the details as well as the big picture.

    There are funny stories, tragic ones, shocking ones, sexy ones and heroic ones in "The Decalogue," each intended to make you think about philosophical issues in complex, real-life terms. Many of the questions it raises are not just for Poland in the 1980s but also for us today — not least, for simplistic Americans who think that just posting the Ten Commandments on school walls will solve all of our country's problems. What if you read the commandments and get two conflicting answers, or none? That's the challenge that these films pose again and again.

    There is also beautiful filmmaking technique and signs of the brilliance that would make Kieslowski one of the world's most intelligent and haunting filmmakers. Now that "The Decalogue" is no longer just a rumor for us in New York, consider yourself commanded to see, savor and ponder at least a few of the episodes on the big screen.

    JANUARY 20, 2001

    Reader comments on The Decalogue:

  • Commandment 9 question   from Debi Loverich, Apr 8, 2005
  • Re: Commandment 9 question   from Nathan, Sep 19, 2005

  • Post a comment on "The Decalogue"