Armchair Cinephile 

TEN VERY AMBIGUOUS COMMANDMENTS

Decalogue (Facets Video)
Heaven (Buena Vista)

 
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Most Americans who have heard of Krzysztof Kieslowski know him for The Double Life of Veronique or his Three Colors trilogy - French productions that granted the Polish director larger budgets and wider distribution than he had ever seen. The lush photography and beautiful lead actresses in those films made them arthouse hits, but Kieslowski had already made his masterpiece in Poland: a cycle of 10 one-hour films called Decalogue, released in 1988 and inspired by the Ten Commandments.

Although inspired by a collection of rules taught in Sunday school, Decalogue is not a religious film in any simple sense. Faith and God are certainly part of the landscape, but they are not the message itself. Rather, Kieslowski was intrigued by the Ten Commandments as a guide to life that has survived for thousands of years while other moral codes have evolved or disappeared. The filmmaker wanted to understand how those ideas stand up in an age when he "was seeing people who didn't really have a clear idea of why they were living." Kieslowski had previously made films dealing with politics, but since a set of films questioning the political system would never have been approved by Polish censors (and since it may have diminished appeal abroad), he and his co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz chose this more universal theme.

The episodes are based on straightforward tenets, but they're not schematic. Some do show the consequences of transgression - setting up a new god, for instance, results in tragedy for one father - but in other episodes, it's unclear whether the characters will suffer or benefit from their choices. Occasionally it is even difficult to determine how the commandment applies to a given plot; in Episode Two, for example, it's helpful to know that swearing something is true constitutes "taking the Lord's name in vain." In another episode, when a pair of former lovers spend Christmas Eve roaming the streets of Warsaw together, it might not be obvious that their crime is ignoring the Sabbath. Strangers to the Judeo-Christian tradition will have an easier time later in the series, when Kieslowski takes on big prohibitions like "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

Fortunately, as in the Three Colors films (which were ostensibly investigations of the ideals symbolized in the French flag: liberty, equality, and fraternity), a viewer needn't be familiar with the philosophical underpinnings. The filmmakers dramatize ideas rather than talking about them, crafting plots that turn each divine imperative into a human issue.

In Episode Two, a reclusive doctor is approached by a young woman whose husband is one of his patients. The doctor (Kieslowski regular Aleksander Bardini, hiding his empathy behind a stone face) is unwilling to go out of his way to address her concerns about the husband's chance of survival until she explains her dilemma: She is pregnant by another man and wants desperately to have the child, but still loves her husband enough to abort it if he is going to live, so he won't discover her affair. She insists that the doctor make a diagnosis that will determine the fate of the unborn child. After repeatedly insisting that he cannot be sure whether the man will recover, the doctor (moved by losses in his own past) finally swears to a prognosis that justifies a course of action for the wife. Never one to take the easy way out, Kieslowski puts the doctor in a no-win situation, and the result of the character's decision is even more ambiguous.

The director's skill as a stylist - displayed with virtuosity in his later films - is evident here as well. In Episode Five ("Thou Shalt Not Kill") the camera plays with shifting, sometimes distorted reflections in glass windows and doors that offer visual support for the suggestion that the government's execution of a murderer is not as different from the criminal's acts as one might like to think. The episode is shot through severely filtered lenses that make the picture as murky as the moral dilemma presented, while lending an ominous tone to the killer's casually aggressive behavior.

Decalogue's 10 stories are set in a single housing development in Warsaw, so characters overlap from film to film. Although this deepens the narrative (and develops Kieslowski's ever-present interest in the way our supposedly private lives are more linked together than we imagine), as with Blue, White and Red, each film stands up well on its own. Individually, they are complex portraits crafted by a filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Taken together, they are a moving picture of humanity's ongoing attempt to figure out how we shalt and shalt not live.

Despite his retirement, Kieslowski was writing another trilogy with Piesiewicz when he died in 1996. Piesiewicz finished the first installment, Heaven, for director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), and while there are certainly things Kieslowski would have done differently, the result - in which an Italian police officer falls in love with a prisoner and helps her escape - is still a fascinating film. Tykwer's fondness for pairing one shot with its opposite, for instance, wouldn't necessarily be the master's style, but it's a fairly successful visualization of some of his themes. It's sad to know that we'll never see Kieslowski's version, but this is a much happier meeting of the movie minds than that other recent posthumous collaboration, A.I.


More by John DeFore

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