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.
By JOSHUA TANZER
"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.
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.
|Original title: Dekalog 1 through Dekalog 10.|
Directed by: Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Written by: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
In Polish with English subtitles.
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 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|
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