11 January 2006


Laurel and I have been watching through late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's series of ten short films called Dekalog and finding them haunting, subtle, moving, and provocative.

Each of the ten films, originally created for Polish television, focuses in upon one of the ten commandments following the biblical order (using the Catholic division), though recognizing that the commandments are intertwined and that breaking one commandment entails breaking others. The breaking of the commandments often occurs in unexpected ways, sometimes on the part of more than one character, and fraught with various ambiguities and open-ended questions.

The interest of the films lies in part in the spareness of the exposition, which forces one to pay close attention in order to discern precisely what it is that is going on, with earlier clues often find fulfillment and come together in unexpected ways. Another aspect of the film's interest is in the banality and everydayness of much evildoing, the ambiguity of many of our actions and the fragility of goodness, humanly speaking. All of this is carried out, moreover, in a context that assumes at least vestiges of Polish Catholicism.

The films hold together as a single, exactingly constructed ten-part work through the careful direction of Kieslowski who has the films set in a single, dingy concrete apartment complex, with characters or plot lines from one film occasionally crossing paths with those in others. There is also one character who, while doing very little (except carrying some sort of burden) and speaking no lines, appears in most of the films, observing the events as they unfold, with a look of irremediable sadness, never interfering, though sometimes seemingly causing pangs of conscience in those he sees.

Almost all the characters are lonely and introverted, and the films, though sometimes sparse with dialogue, nonetheless open a glimpse into the interior life of these characters. And the overarching themes of the films don't emerge easily from any single film, but build up by bits throughout the series, themes of compassion, mercy, empathy, and charity.

The films are beautiful and a stunning achievement, well worth the ten hours of their viewing.