Apr 21, 2008


I should totally cancel my Netflix. For the last month I've been slowly working through the Decalogue, an acclaimed set of 10 short films by polish director Krysztof Kieslowski. I'd seen his Red/White/Blue trilogy while in high school, but haven't gotten around to watching this series (from the late 80s) until now.

It's not a series for everyone. While not obtuse or abstract like some "artsy" films, the pacing is slow and deliberate. There is very little action, much more dialog, and even more wordless shots that set mood and scene. It's really the latter that makes the series so significant. The series is a critic's favourite, being rated 9.2/10 on imdb and 100% on rottentomatoes.

The series is supposedly inspired by the 10 Commandments, although for most of the films I couldn't really identify the particular commandment it was based on; many of them seemed to point to the laws on adultery or covetousness. The films aren't linked together, there's different characters and different stories in each, although they all take place within a similar suburb of Warsaw. There's one particular character who acts as an observer, and shows up in almost all the films, but never speaks nor interacts directly with anyone in the film. Unlike the standard Hollywood fare which keeps you entranced for an hour and a half with nonstop action, comedy, and skin, this is a series that makes you think and feel. Instead of pointing at the breakers of the laws, the series makes you identify with them and emphathize. At times it's more painful than entertaining to watch, but perhaps you feel more alive for it.

The following's a summary (and complete spoiler) of the films. It's a serious disservice to anyone who intends to watch this series, so I recommend skipping over it.

1. I think I liked this film because it centered around a young boy genius who programmed his father's computer for fun. His relationship with his father and absent mother are poignant. There viewer is given a strong sense of premonition as the father and son write a program to calculate the stability of the ice on the local river. Eventually, we find the boy goes out to skate on the supposedly solid ice, just to fall through, leaving the father in despair.

2. A woman seeks her husband's apparently heartless doctor to get a prognosis on his potentially terminal illness, a question that the doctor cannot answer with any certainty. It turns out however, that she's got a deeper reason for wanting to know: she's carrying the child of her husband's friend. It's a child that she wants, if her husband were to die. But if her husband were to live it's a child that she'd have to get rid of. Her problem now also becomes the doctor's problem as he tries to find an answer for her. The ending seems to be the worst case scenario - the doctor predicts that the husband will die. The woman keeps the child, but the husband survives to learn that he has a son.

3. A taxi driver abandons his wife and kids on Christmas Eve to aid a woman, a former lover, find her missing husband. They start off lying that his cab had been stolen to get him out of the house, but as the night goes on, she builds up the lies as they search through hospitals and morgues for her husband. In the end her story unravels, her "husband" was not actually that, but another former lover, from one night in the past involving all three of them. He actually has a family too. She only sought out the taxi driver to keep her company on the holiday night where she felt so incredibly alone. In the end it's not quite clear whether he wronged his family or whether he was simply compassionate towards the woman. Or maybe both.

4. A young woman, who's mother passed away when she was just a child, explores her past in an old letter from her mother. Unclear as to whether her father is really her father, she creates a world where he isn't, and draws him into the incestuous mutual infatuation. In the end, after heartwrenching temptation, she admits that she had fabricated the story. The father and daughter burn the real letter, unopened, the uncertainty to her true father saving their relationship.

5. A maladjusted youth murders a heartless taxi driver in cold blood. His passionate public defender fails to save him from the death penalty. Although the action in the film revolves around the murderer, the heart of the film revolves around the lawyer's failed struggle against the death penalty. I found this movie a little more emotionally detached, but the lawyer's monologue put this as the most political and philosophical film.

6. A young post office clerk falls in love with his older neighbour as he spies on her with her lovers. As he pursues her though, she turns the story around. As she invites him in and embarrases him with his inexperience, he goes from being the crazy stalker to the victim. She becomes penitent for taking advantage of him as he attempts suicide from the heartbreak. Various attitudes towards love are questioned, from his obsessive infatuation to her purely physical and emotionally unattached romps. Fortunately, he survives, but the film leaves the end of their relationship undefined.

7. When a young woman fails to comfort her kid sister after a nightmare, her mother takes over, and the sadness on her face foreshadoes the truth. As she kidnaps her younger sister from a school play and escapes to the countryside, the truth is revealed to the audience. She is in fact the mother; she was underaged when her daughter was born, so her mother raised the child as her own. The situation is complicated by the fact that the father, the man that she's now run to, was her teacher, and employed by her mother, who was the headmistress of a school. As the real mother is distraught by how her daughter only acknowledges her a sister, one wonders then, who really stole the daughter from whom.

8. The film starts in a university class. A journalist comes in and asks the professor about a situation - it happens to be the situation from film #2, what should the doctor have done? The professor's answer is revealing. Distanced from the drama of doctor and the mother, her answer was simple - the child was alive, that's all that mattered. It turned out that the journalist was once a child fleeing from the Holocaust, and the professor had, at the time, turned her down for asylum. The journalist had come back to ask why, the professor answered that she had been falsly informed that the situation was a trap.

9. A prominent surgeon finds he is impotent, and expects his young wife to take on a lover. However, she denies that she would need this. He is suspicious however, and spies on her, tapping her phone calls and sifting through her belongings in her absent mother's apartment. When he finally catches her with a younger man, he waits outside the apartment, afraid to confront her. A secondary relationship builds up between him and a pretty patient. I'm not sure if it was intended, but it almost seemed to show his potential for cheating, if it weren't that he wasn't able to. Later, at another instance he hides in the closet, but this time she breaks up with her lover, and discovers her husband in the closet. In probably the most wincing scene of the series, she's repentant for the pain she caused him. Perhaps she had thought he'd be accepting of it given his initial reaction to his impotence. As he sends her off on a ski trip for some time to heal his wounds, he absurdly discovers that the lover is heading off to the same resort. Crushed by his wife's brazen infidelity, he attempts suicide, not knowing that lover had acted on his own. When she sees the lover at the resort, she flees back home, but it's too late. Fortunately however, (and fortunately for the viewer) Kieslowski chooses not to take the worst possible ending for once, and the husband survives his attempt, and talks to his wife as he recovers from surgery.

10. A pair of brothers meet at their estranged father's funeral. In sorting through the father's effects, they find his apartment spartan, except for a stamp collection worth tens to hundreds of millions of zlotskys. In a comedy of errors, beginning with the son of one of the men accidentally trading some highly valuable stamps for a pile of worthless ones, the two men attempt to swindle their stamps back. As they are sucked into the world of high value stamp trading, they find at the end that the entire ordeal was an intricate plan to swindle them of the entire collection. As one of the brothers had been convinced to trade his kidney for a particularly valuable stamp, thieves break into their apartment while he is in the hospital, cleaning them out. After pointing fingers at each other, the brothers find peace in each other, despite having lost their father's fortune.

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