Thursday, July 23, 2009

1989 Rewind: The Decalogue

"God is very simple, if you have faith," says the aunt of a young agnostic in the first installment of Krzysztof Kieślowski's ten-part series The Decalogue. But that's the thing, isn't it? Faith is always easy for those who have it, those who have never paused to reflect upon it. The people who need it most, however, will only ever see madness and illogic of it. You likely wouldn't expect Kiéslowski, himself an agnostic if not an outright atheist, to write and direct a series on the Ten Commandments, but then how many of the atheist Bergman's films are the greatest movies on faith ever made?

Besides, The Decalogue reflects Kiéslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz's manner of handling themes metaphysically and intimately. These 10 films neither praise faith nor condemn it, nor do they deal exclusively with one commandment at a time. For example, Part III, concerning the commandment "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy," barely ties into that commandment and instead focuses on a lie. Many of the short films deals with more than one commandment at a time, with characters from other parts slipping in and out of the camera's peripheral vision as they move throughout the apartment complex the characters all share.

Each part was written by Piesiewicz and Kiéslowski and directed by Kiéslowski, but they used a different cinematographer each time to reflect the shifting tone of each chapter. Part III and its Yuletide setting are festive, while Part V, "Thou shalt not kill," is appropriately unsettling. Each of the films uses the sort of soft, cheap stock made for TV at the time, butKiéslowski makes them no less mesmerizing than his glorious Three Colors trilogy. He knows just how to light his characters, the angle and color, to emphasize his themes and their thoughts without being too obvious about it.

Each of the short films works because the director uses the Commandments as a loose guideline for an idea, not as the rigid backbone of the episode. Part VII, "Thou shalt not steal" revolves around a kidnapping, but it is the mother who takes her own child, away from the child's grandmother, who poses as her mom. A Jewish student reveals to a professor that she is the girl the woman denied shelter to when she was hiding from the Nazis in Part VIII. The lie of the professor's life sparks a conversation between the two that brings the truth to light, but not in a way you might expect.

You see, these are real people, not artistic abstractions. Kiéslowski has the ability to take Bergman's philosophies and torments and let them flow naturally through conversations, not the despaired outcries of creations every bit as manufactured and meticulously placed as the rest of themise-en-scène (not a criticism, mind you). The intelligent scientist and his genius son program a computer to tell them when the local lake has iced over enough to be safely skated. The two place their faith in the machine, to tragic results. When the father turns to God in the end, this is not the moral of the story but rather the outgrowth of a man who's previous faith was shattered. The entire point of Decalogue I is not to mock science but blind faith in any philosophy.

The actors are uniformly superb, precisely because none calls attention to himself. In Part VI, the best of the 10 films, a young postal clerk falls in love with a woman and begins to spy on her. When he finally professes his love, she humiliates him sexually to prove that there is no such thing as love, only sex. The lad, played by OlafLubaszenko, is believably timid and ultimately sweet-natured, while the woman (Grazyna Szapolowska ) is hardened and jaded without coming off as artificial or overly bitchy. The story takes a number of turns as the boy attempts suicide, only for the woman to fall for him after all. It becomes a sort of battle of wits between the two, one that moves far outside the framework of "Thou shalt not commit adultery" and becomes something far more resonant for it.

The plotting of this world is sublime. In the professor's lecture in Part VIII, a student brings up the philosophical debate of Part II, wherein a woman decided to abort her lover's child based on her near-death husband's outcome and placed much of the responsibility for choosing on the doctor. In eight of the episodes, a strange man sits outside the apartment complex, silently watching events unfold. The director admitted he had no idea what the man stood for, but the obvious and popular response is that he is either Jesus or an angel, watching with displeasure as these characters commit their sins though never intervening.

The Decalogue is by turns bleak and hopeful: Part VII shows our young mother stripped once more of her child, while the ethical discussion of Part VIII renews the student's faith in humanity. Part X is the closest the director ever came to outright farce. These stories always seem to hit just the right notes and effortlessly display the myriad of emotions of the human condition because everything is so natural and underplayed. What we have here is one of the greatest achievements by any artist of the 20th century. Though planned as a TV miniseries and shot with TV stock for little cash, it is one of the towering works of cinema. I sit here now holding my rental copies and resigning myself to returning them, forcing myself not to break out the debit card and order a copy of my own (I need a job). If you're interested in foreign cinema or film in general, you simply must view this extraordinary, moving, dense yet completely engaging work.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent write-up, I liked what you said about Decalogue I, I may quote you on that! :)