Saturday, August 8, 2020

Dekalog (1988, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Quest Status: 709 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #181   

A set of ten short feature films, each dealing with complex moral themes and shot by a different cinematographer, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog almost seems too broad in scope to be considered a single film. Each film deals with a spiritual dilemma based on one of the Ten Commandments. However, Kieslowski's foremost stroke of genius is not making this explicit or ascribing individual commandments to each respective episodes. It's up to the viewer to contemplate the situation in each episode and make their own conclusions about how it relates to the Ten Commandments and their own understanding of morality. This is definitely not a preachy religious film - in fact there are very few direct mentions of God - although those with an interest in religion will probably find much to enjoy here, as will fans of well-made psychological dramas.

The first episode begins with a feeling of freezing stillness. A homeless man sits next to the smoldering embers of a dying fire and stares at the river, a woman gazes at images of children playing on a TV in a shop window, a boy sees a dead dog lying motionless in the snow. In this episode, the duality of warmth and cold expresses the mystery of life and death, the bond between love ones and the icy nothingness of their absence. The second, which depicts a medical life and death dilemma, evokes the mood of a biting cold day in the dead of winter - stark and painfully clear. The third conjures the calm after a light Christmas Eve snow, in which the absence of people and the empty streets bathed in neon reflections from Christmas Tree lights creates the impression of a seedy nighttime world into which no decent person would dare to venture. Whereas these first three episodes and many others, create a stark visual world of desolation and loneliness in subtly different ways, the fifth episode (later expanded into a feature film, A Short Film About Killing) takes off in a completely different direction, with the cinematographer Sławomir Idziak using an array of camera filters to distort the colors into a sickening array of yellow, green and grey hues that evoke a dark world of corruption and violence.

As the series progresses, the individual situations presented in each episode begin to assume a powerful cumulative effect. A young woman learns that the man who raised her is not her father, and is alarmed to discover that she is romantically attracted to him. A bitter young man kills a misanthropic taxi driver and is sentenced to death - provoking the viewer to feel sympathy for both characters while also questioning the efficacy of the death penalty. A socially awkward boy spies on a sexually liberated artist in the apartment across from him until a series of chance encounters bring the two closer together in unexpected and disturbing ways. A young woman abducts her own daughter from her overly protective mother. A Holocaust survivor meets the Christian woman who almost adopted her during the war, but backed out for religious reasons. An impotent man discovers that his attractive wife is cheating on him with a young physics student, driving him to the brink of madness and suicide. And finally, the death of a father brings together two estranged brothers who become dangerously obsessed with their late father's massive stamp collection. The series begins with an innocent mistake that leads to death, and ends with a tragicomic bungling of life, encompassing an incredible breadth of tone and variety of experience over the course of the ten hours.

Each film may have a different cinematographer and deal with a different moral dilemma, but the ten episodes have much more in common than initially meets the eye. Kieslowski pairs each story down to its barest dramatic elements: a moral dilemma which mainly concerns two people, whom it invariably affects in different ways. All other characters in the film are peripheral, although since most of the main characters are all residents of the same building, characters from previous episodes have occasional cameos in later ones - reminding us that the lives of the other peripheral characters might be just as rich and rife with dilemma as the story currently at hand. This is Kieslowski's master stroke, which makes it possible to see Dekalog as a single film rather than a mere TV series. Over the course of the ten episodes, he creates a world which feels real and lived in, despite the small scope of its individual stories. Together, they form a multi-layered tapestry of human experience and emotional crisis which transcends the individual characters contained within. Dekalog could take place anywhere in the world, at any time in history. The endless depths of humanity's attempts to connect to and relate to the people around them are timeless, as is Kieslowski's riveting testament to the human condition.

--- 291 films remaining ---

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