Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Decalogue"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Decalogue
Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988

it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what's really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don't realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.
-- Stanley Kubrick
The Decalogue is a series of ten one-hour movies based very loosely on the Ten Commandments. Filmed in the late 1980s, they chronicle dramatic events and decisions in the lives of various professional types living in a Warsaw apartment complex. There is the barest hint of interconnection, with characters from one film occasionally showing up in the background of another, but each of the ten films is essentially self-contained.

The Decalogue is not well known here in the U.S., and it’s not hard to see why. You couldn’t give it a ten-hour screening, and any way you would chop up the series -- three chunks? four chunks? -- would have its own problems. Combine this with the Polish language, slow pacing, and the fact that an invitation to moral reflection is pretty much built into the project, and you’ve got yourself a pretty big marketing headache here in North America.

But when the likes of Stanley Kubrick describes films as among the best ever made in his lifetime, it’s time to sit up and take notice. And indeed, the Decalogue is a pretty impressive piece of work. In nine of the ten films, the characters deal with fascinating but very realistic moral dilemmas within scenarios that are absorbing and often haunting (#4, alas, is pretty dumb). The technical aspects are excellent, and the huge cast is superb – indeed, Poland must be just awash in excellent actors, if this project is any indication. The grey palette is not always lovely to look at, but it is part and parcel with the pensive mood that Kieslowski is looking for, and achieves.

I had a similar experience in watching each of the movies. Initially, I would be disoriented and skeptical during slow-moving, amorphous introductions. Exposition comes gradually, so for the first several minutes I would be tempted to dismiss the whole thing by making fun of the near-cliched emotional detachment – something that Kieslowski seems to share with a lot of German directors one country over. But suddenly, about ten minutes in, I’d notice that I had become engrossed, and very concerned to figure out how the characters would resolve their situation. Happily, they are never allowed shortcuts; in Poland, unlike in Hollywood, problems apparently don’t go away on their own as long as you cleave to your conservative values.

There’s a lot more I could talk about – the Decalogue is a lot of movie – but these are supposed to be brief reviews, so I’ll shut up. Except to say, these films are not nearly as didactic as I’ve made them sound here. They’re good!

[Right: This man is not Moses. He is not delivering the law.]

Plot: Life gets complicated for various Poles, and they have to decide how to react.

Visuals: Claustrophobic, often murky, evocative, well-matched to the narrative.

Dialogue: In Polish, but seemingly natural enough. Lots of confessional conversations.

Prognosis: Not a light entertainment by any means, and not for anyone without a track record with European films. Plan on watching them one at a time over a few weeks. Do not watch while suffering from Depression. Do not count on happy endings, but don’t rule them out either. Enjoy!


Yankee in England said...

woo hoo the list on my online dvd service was getting pretty short will have to check them out. My husband thanks you in advance for giving him 10 one hours sessions at the pub as he refuses to watch any films with sub titles.

Anonymous said...

Kieslowski was a wonderful director. I've been watching the Decalogue one or two at a time for the past month, with the Three Colors trilogy and some others thrown in for good measure. So, basically living with Kieslowski. The fourth film? After watching it, I saw a banner in Target of (ostensibly) a father tied up with a hose and his two little girls hanging over his shoulders, and I thought it was messed up. Thank you, Kieslowski.