The Decalogue

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The Decalogue, the monumental 10-hour film by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-96), is a collection of short stories, each running about an hour and each related, often obliquely, to one of the Ten Commandments while centering explicitly around a point of moral crisis. As with his best-known features — The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and his three-color trilogy, Blue (1993), White and Red (both 1994) — there’s an aura of spiritual gloom hanging over the enterprise but, unlike in the features, the dread never descends to being merely stylish.

Kieslowski and his co-scripter Krzysztof Piesiewicz start each story in a simple but indirect manner, slowly giving the viewer information until some well-defined crucial moment arrives, leading to usually unexpected emotional repercussions. Decalogue 6: Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery starts with a young Peeping Tom spying on an older woman across a shared courtyard. His being found out is inevitable, but where it leads has a lifelike unpredictability. The narrative of Decalogue 4: Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother pivots on a young woman’s discovery that her father may, in fact, not really be her father and then tumbles into a strange area of sexual tension and shared fantasy.

Some of these segments are flat-out masterpieces — one wouldn’t want to change a scene — while others are less gripping but still thoughtful and darkly insightful. But the cumulative effect is undeniably impressive. The Decalogue is a towering work of humane pessimism.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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