On Film: Mosaic Law in a Fresh Light

Polish director's 10-movie cycle offers keen insights into some of today's most vexing moral questions

ONE of the functions of art is to reinvestigate fundamental truths and rediscover the meaning of experience. So when Polish director Krsysztof Kieslowski chose the Ten Commandments as the basis for a series of films, he took on the foundation of the ethical system of the West, burrowing beneath cliches to a fresh vision of the Mosaic Law. ``Decalogue,'' Kieslowski's 10-film cycle, is a brilliant achievement on every level - astonishingly discerning about the moral frailties of our age, beautifully made, and intensely dramatic.

Some Polish critics link Kieslowski with the ``Cinema of Moral Concern'' movement in their country, which began with filmmakers Andrzej Wajda and Krsysztof Zanussi and has taken up the most pressing moral and spiritual issues of Polish society. But Kieslowski, who directed ``Camera Buff,'' doesn't like labels of any kind, abruptly dismissing terms like ``moral concern'' as too simplistic.

``A moralist is one who supplies answers,'' Kieslowski told audiences at last month's Denver International Film Festival, where ``Decalogue'' received its American premi`ere. ``I only ask the questions.'' Still, few film directors anywhere in the world even ask the questions, fewer still with Kieslowski's probing insight.

All 10 of ``Decalogue's'' autonomous stories take place in a single apartment complex. A protagonist from one story may appear in another as an extra, riding an elevator or holding a door for a main character. Kieslowski evokes a sense of many lives going on at the same time in close but isolated proximity, and so startles the viewer awake to the lives around him.

One enigmatic character shows up in nine of the stories. He has no lines. Once or twice his sad expression seems almost sinister; most of the time it looks angelic. He is a witness to the characters' lives if not to their deeds, and he helps to unify the cycle, contributing to its luxuriant textures. We wonder if communication with him might prevent or arrest some of the protagonist's suffering.

Excellent performances by many of the greats of Polish cinema and a few inspired amateurs distinguish the whole cycle. The 10 episodes were shot by different cinematographers, each of whom invests freshness and visual excitement in the work.

But it is Kieslowski's exquisite network of symbols, his predilection for capturing the isolation and anguish of his characters framed by a window or reflected in a mirror, his feeling for the fluid interaction of individual lives, and his surprising storytelling that combine to defeat one's expectations.

None of the 10 pictures is simplistic dramatically, visually, or ethically. Each locates new meaning in the Mosaic Law through innovative interpretations of its letter in singular stories. ``Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,'' for example, concerns a scientist who places all his faith in science - with tragic consequences to his precocious young son.

The cycle was conceived and produced for Polish television, and it bears no resemblance to an American mini-series. Each of ``Decalogue's'' 10 films is complete unto itself, a perfect little drama capable of standing alone, and without direct reference to its Commandment. Each film was designed to be one hour long.

Two of the films (those corresponding to ``Thou shalt not kill'' and ``Thou shalt not commit adultery'') were later turned into feature-length films. They are the most satisfying aesthetically, if not necessarily the most provoking.

``A Short Film About Killing'' concerns the brutal, senseless murder of a taxi driver and the execution of the guilty young killer. The murder is excruciatingly difficult to watch, and so, too, is the execution.

Kieslowski told audiences here in Denver that he had no intention of making an anti-capital-punishment statement. He makes neither the victim nor the criminal particularly sympathetic, and he avoids sentimentalization of their fates. He simply shows us the nature of violence for what it is, without any kind of manipulative message.

The ground whereon the characters' lives intersect - the young idealistic attorney, the killer, the victim, and assorted minor characters - is ordinary. But the subtle use of green and yellow filters throws a sickly cast over the screen, symbolizing the distortion of thought and emotion violence always represents. There is nothing exciting or romantic about this portrayal of mindless malice, and Kieslowski said he blames no one for leaving the theater when it is shown.

``A Short Film About Love,'' the second feature-length episode, focuses on the corruption (adulteration) of love, rather than marital infidelity.

A young boy falls in love with an older woman and spies on her with a telescope across the high-rise's courtyard, eventually revealing his feeling for her. Hardened by years of cynical promiscuity, she humiliates him, and he attempts suicide. Then, stricken with remorse for her callousness, she sits beside the recovering teen-ager as he sleeps, peering through his telescope.

What she sees across the courtyard turns inward on her own life, her own heart - her cynicism, her betrayal of herself and love. Kieslowski is no slave to cinematic realism, yet we are consistently aware of his integrity and the internal logic of each film. It seems perfectly natural that the woman should see herself through the telescope.

OF the eight shorter films, those corresponding to ``Thou shalt not bear false witness'' and ``Thou shalt not steal'' are arguably the most exciting. The former shows us a professor of ethics confronting a tragic incident in her past: A little Jewish child she had refused to harbor during the Nazi occupation returns 40 years later to ask her why. The professor's obvious goodness disarms Elizabeth, who learns the truth: False information about a Gestapo trap laid for the professor's husband, an officer in the Resistance, turned the child away. The film is complex, the emotions carefully layered. But the possibility of forgiveness - despite the temptation to ``bear false witness'' - foreshadows the healing of deep emotional wounds.

``Thou shalt not steal'' defeats all expectations with a surprising tale of child abuse and the ``theft'' of affection - a far worse crime than the theft of property. A woman who has neglected and alienated her own daughter usurps the affections of the young, unwed daughter's child.

Each of the characters who has betrayed the girl as she grew up winds through the story's unpredictable plot, and the pallid, self-serving rationalizations so common in daily life blush crimson under Kieslowski's lens.

Kieslowski dissects the banality of breaking the Commandments. Everyday greed, lust, callousness, cruelty, and selfish willfulness come disguised; it's not always easy to distinguish them. But the havoc they cause is felt.

Each of the films is open to interpretation. None is tied to the letter of the Commandments. Sometimes the connection seems obscure (``Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy'' is particularly enigmatic). But the cumulative power of ``Decalogue'' lies in what it reveals of the spirit of the Mosaic Law. The truth and life of these principles are seen to be basic to human experience, not arbitrarily imposed on it.

After its Denver premi`ere, ``Decalogue'' went on to win acclaim at the Chicago Film Festival. The distributor for the cycle, Film 2000 in Canada, is still negotiating about a release in the United States.

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