Criterion Prediction #36: The Decalogue, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Decalogue
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Cast: Artur Barciś, Olgierd Łukaszewicz, Olaf Lubaszenko, Jerzy Zass, Jerzy Stuhr, Krystyna Janda
Synopsis: The Decalogue is the Ten Commandments realized in ten, hour-long installments that focus on the various lives of working/lower class residents of a high-rise apartment complex. Kieslowski and frequent collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicsz adopt the fundamental content of each commandment as a means to explore a range of contemporary issues, deconstructing the black and white moralizing of religious values against the situational ethics of everyday life.
Critique: Cinema has a handful of dissonant spiritual expressionists; directors like Bergman, Tarkovsky and Dreyer can provoke a profound emotional response regarding the existence of God and the nature of faith. However, Kieslowski anchors his existential quandary with a more fluid circulation to his narrative. Drawing from potentially heavy-handed material Kieslowski opts for a more humanized point of view without shying from the self-destructive and alienating actions of his characters. This palatable retextualization of The Ten Commandments is engrossing and each story is fully formed – while the frontline application of its source plays with significant effect, we can’t help but wonder if these people are at the mercy of God’s law or merely snared in the inescapable burden of existence.
The dilemma of right or wrong dissolves into the obfuscation of contemporary life and yet the destinies of these people seem preordained.
Some entries use dramatic agency as if it’s the only way to give these commandments substance or correlation to life in contemporary society; others are relatively straightforward in their delivery. The first episode revolves around a father and son whose “deification” of technology has grave consequences, a telling object lesson that seems relevant now more than ever as our dependence on “false idols” facilitates our daily lives.
“Thou shalt not take the name of thy Lord in vain” is a sophisticated treatise on fidelity, as well as the eternally disputed issue of abortion. “Thou shalt not kill’ is a blunt and disquieting exploration of capital punishment, followed by “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” centering on a young voyeur whose fascination with his promiscuous neighbor culminates in a bout of psychological and sexual ethics.
Originally, The Decalogue was intended to showcase ten of Poland’s up and coming directors but separation anxiety compelled Kieslowski to take on the entirety of the project since he and frequent collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz penned the script and conceived the overall idea.
However, the late director decided to employ a different cinematographer for each episode, lending a sense of visual diversity fitting to the tonal shifts in the series.
The overall experience is a labyrinthine exploration of moral complexity that is an achievement in filmmaking unlike anything before or after.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Criterion producers Curtis Tsui and Kim Hendrickson revealed in October 2014 at the Wexner Center for the Arts that they are working on a comprehensive restoration of The Decalogue but acquiring the source materials has held this gem back from receiving a proper release. Previewing the restored version of A Short Film About Killing (the extended version of Episode Five) on Criterion’s Hulu Plus channel inspires confidence that this will be a stunning collection because the picture is stunning, a vast improvement from the Facets Video/Kino release. As far as bonus features are concerned I’d imagine there’s a massive amount of critical input regarding The Decalogue, especially from Roger Ebert whose contribution to the Facets Video version will likely carry over to the anticipated Criterion release. Even though this news is technically a rumor, The Decalogue is an inevitable candidate for a spine number. The fact that they’re taking their time means that this set is going to be worth the wait.