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Decalogue

At last the public will have an opportunity to view a masterpiece that was the talk of film festivals all over the world, including San Francisco, in 1989 and 1990. Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Decalogue," one-hour contemporary tv dramas loosely inspired by the Ten Commandments, are now being shown theatrically in double bills.

Kieslowski went on to make "The Double Life of Veronique" as well as the famous trilogy named for the colors of the French flag: "Blue" for liberty, "White" for equality and "Red" for fraternity.

Although those themes inspired Kieslowski and his co-script writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, all the films also reflect their penchant for puzzles, ambiguity and the chances that alter the course of lives.

But there is no question that "Decalogue" is the summit of their achievements. I have just watched — for the second and third times — those 10 self-contained stories that examine moral paradoxes involving love, betrayal, death, idolatry, ethics, incest and adultery. They take place in a huge Warsaw apartment complex. Each story in "Decalogue" sustains a quiet, awesome suspense as the working of fate unfolds, often to a heartbreaking conclusion. Originally two episodes were released separately: "A Short Film About Love" and " A Short Film About Killing."

The ethical questions they all raise were not designed to be cinematic equivalents of the commandments God gave to Moses. Each episode bears a Commandment number but not the text. "It's just a look at how difficult it is to live," Kieslowski once noted.

Supported by great Polish actors, those difficulties are delineated with an economy that miraculously illuminates a life: A young voyeur's love for a wearily sophisticated neighbor. The dilemma of a wife who loves her dying husband but is pregnant with another man's child. The loneliness of a discarded mistress. The passion of a daughter for the man who may or may not be her real father. A professor of ethics forced to face the decision she made affecting a six -year old Jewish girl during World War 11 . A child torn between her mother and grandmother. An impotent husband trying to believe in his wife's fidelity.

The series, done for Polish television, originated with Piesiewicz, a prominent attorney who had been inspired by a fifteenth century painting he saw as a boy. It was titled "Decalogue" and divided into ten parts with particular themes of the Biblical injunctions in those times. Piesiewicz wondered how they would apply to Poland under martial law. "The churches were full of people," Piesiewicz told me, "And I was curious as to whether they would become religious or political. These were the paradoxes of our times." Finally, the two decided that politics would play no part in the dramas.

From a philosophical view, it was most difficult to get a dramatic handle on the First Commandment . ("I am the Lord they God. Thou shalt have no other God before me"). "Then we realized," Kieslowski said, "that the competition for God today is not another God, but things which compete with the idea of God. Communists and fascists found God in an idea. So we started looking at things that some people found more important than God. We found a very simple conflict between faith and the brain, the conflict between the head and the heart."

Finally, they dramatized the closely knit relationship between a professor and his winsome son who have great confidence in their personal computers, but inexplicable fate plays its own game of chess with them.

On all 10 counts, it is an extraordinary achievement!

San Francisco Chronicle April 29, 1990, with excerpts from interviews with Kieslowski and Piesiewicz.

 

 

 

 

 

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