Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
Directed by: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Decalogue”, a set of ten short films based on the Ten Commandments, was released on videocassette and DVD in April of 2000 even though the original Polish television airing was in 1988 and ’89. Since the release, I have seen little commentary written about the collection in secular or in religious print. I’m not surprised by a lack of coverage in the popular media. Journalists and critics falter when they try to discuss religion. Unable or unwilling to view it as an absolute, reporters are more comfortable characterizing religion as a pastime or an inclination. In their eyes, faith does not form character. It may contribute to it, the way a pinch of salt does to a recipe, but it is rarely depicted as the core of one’s persona, or as a citadel of values from which a reader may obtain some insight and guidance. The moral ambiguity and the ethical relativism that is embedded in journalism is also anchored in today’s cinema. Those of us who like going to the movies and look to ChristianSpotlight.com for advice have come to understand that.
“The Decalogue” (in Polish, with English subtitles) does not yield to fashion or to trend. There is no elliptical story pattern so common to television situation comedies and to most popular films, which brings the story from a familiar starting point through a few twists and turns and into an even more familiar home stretch. When I think about a movie like “Pearl Harbor”, I realize how much this process has become a fixture of commercial films. When Pearl Harbor’s three main characters are introduced, their destinies become embarrassingly obvious. If not for the distraction of a war, and some technically boffo explosions, this kind of hollow melodrama wouldn’t make the cut for a weekly episode of “Dawson’s Creek.”
The plots in “The Decalogue” are, for the most part, uncomplicated, but the human interactions contain enough contradictions, complexities and surprises to make each film unique and appealing. I watched the whole set over a period of two days. Those were long sittings, but I had a hard time turning off the video machine. Afterwards, I went back and watched one or two films a week, anticipating each one the way I used to look forward to those tight, well-scripted suspense dramas American television churned out forty years ago, but has now abandoned. These ten movies are not just religious tomes; they are good suspense yarns. The varieties of human existence make for a variety of human choices, and it is those choices and their consequences, derived from the character’s use of their free will, that drive the plots. Most of the characters do not come across as evil. None of them come across as saintly. Their spirits are strong (for people trying to survive under Poland’s Communist government).
The first film, “I Am The Lord Thy God; Thou Shalt Not Have Other Gods Before Me” tells the story of a father who relies on his computer to plan and predict every aspect of his life. When he uses the machine to determine when the local pond will have the best skating conditions for his son to try out a new pair of skates, his idol (the computer) fails him and his life turns tragic. Such a tale could easily be reduced to a cookie cutter man-against-nature cautionary tale, but under Kieslowski’s direction, the themes of idolatry and loss of faith are clear and palpable. This extra dimension—a kind of subtle brimstone, if you will—not only instills the story with religious weight, it adds suspense, giving the drama a slow burning and eerie sense of dread.
The second film, Thou Shalt Not Take The Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain explores the relationship between a pregnant woman, her gravely ill husband (who is not the child’s father), and the husband’s physician. The woman wants the doctor to give her an accurate prognosis of her husband’s chances for survival. She will keep the baby or abort the baby depending on the doctor’s prognosis. Her selfishness taints the providence she seeks, and by seeking to corrupt what is divine, she corrupts herself. The doctor is asked to do God’s work by predicting the sick man’s outcome. The story revolves around whether or not the doctor will make the choice, and if he does, why? The relationship between him, the woman and his patient is a complex one in which there are no easy solutions.
I would write at length about each small film if I had the time and the space. I recommend renting the whole collection, as a unit if you can go the marathon nine hours, or in parts, watching one or two at a time. It took some work for me to figure out how the commandment worked into some of the stories, and what the director was actually trying to say about some of the commandments, but the work paid off. Among my favorite ones were: film 8: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor, one of the most cogent elucidations on truth and identity that I have seen, in which a Jewish woman visits an ethics professor, who during World War II, refused to protect the woman (then a young girl) from Nazi occupiers, and film 10: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods, a suspense yarn in the tradition of the best in film noir, in which two brothers inherit their father’s rare stamp collection and find themselves consumed by the same greed which they condemned him for.
The stories Kieslowski tells could take place anywhere. And could happen to anyone. American television drama gives us the illusion of reality, but how many of us define our lives by big courtroom battles or major league investigations of corruption or media-soaked scandals? In everyone of the standard TV “dramas” we know that the main character will emerge triumphant and cleansed. No one in the “Commandment” films emerges with a crown or with garlands. They are ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. They face the same dilemmas that most of us do in our day to day lives. Keislowski does not even focus on what would seem his and his characters’ most pressing dilemma, one that most of us cannot fathom: living in a Communist society. Most of the characters live in a socialist style apartment building, but there are no obvious government forces oppressing their lives. There is a general feeling of weariness and stagnation, a sense that socially and economically there is nowhere to move.
Keislowski made three films in the 1990s: “Red” for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best director, “Blue” and “White”. I recommend these also. The three films received critical acclaim in the United States as well as a strong art house following, but most moviegoers are still unfamiliar with his work.
“The Decalogue” may be hard to track down in your video store. Not every outlet carries the collection. If you decide to take on the search, and to sit through the nine hours of film, you won’t be disappointed. Not only is it a cause for joy to see a subject such as the Ten Commandments treated with respect and understanding on screen, but it is also a film lover’s treat to get ten good movies in one package.